Most of us remember our first time, the memory fuzzed with shame, or at least mild chagrin. As a seminal event, it may have set in motion a lifetime of proclivities, cemented a sense of self or delineated strong aversions.
It sounds salacious, I know. In fact, this particular first is often yoked inextricably to that other one. I speak of our first hangover. That waking up, gum-eyed and sweater-toothed, to two thoughts in rapid succession: 1. Whaaa? 2. I’m dying. For slow learners among us, it may take years to unravel the mystery of how much, and in what combination, is too much. (Wait, is it beer before liquor, never sicker?)
What is going on: Enzymes in your liver break down ethanol into a compound called acetaldehyde, which causes a soul-sucking inflammatory response – dry mouth, nausea, headache, self-loathing, compulsive Netflixing, sweat pants with shot elastic. There’s also something called glutamine rebound and another thing called vasopressin, but hey, I’m a restaurant critic, so let’s take it to a level I can understand. You’ve consumed too much of something, so you have to find the ideal countervailing comestible. Not to be confused with Snape’s countercurse, it’s the countercourse.
It has been on my mind because recently I hosted a party at which there was overexuberance and an impromptu sleepover. The next morning, a partygoer of Russian descent declined coffee, water, etc., but had this question: Do you have a jar of pickles? Vlasics pushed to the side, she emptied the jar of liquid into a highball glass and chugged. She spoke of electrolytes, of ancient Slavic wisdom. She seemed perkier. I would drink 10 ounces of pickle juice if my gastroenterologist deemed it medically necessary, but this seemed punishing.
I consulted my Facebook Brain to see what remedies existed in the ether. Surely it says something about my friends, but I had 32 passionate responses in a few hours (aspirin; water, so much water; cannabis; and the outlier, Cheetos in tandem with soy chai and Grateful Dead bootlegs).
I road tested some.
Hair of the dog
Chefs and restaurant people have deep faith in the healing powers of amaro, that Italian herbal bitter drunk as an after-dinner digestif. There are the fancy-pants liqueurs such as cynar (infused with artichoke), but the one that comes up most often as a hangover remedy is Fernet-Branca. Michelin-starred English chef Fergus Henderson swears by a drink that’s two parts Fernet-Branca and one part creme de menthe. I can do that. It was the color of a dirty Ninja Turtle, the flavor like a tincture of Listerine Pocketpaks. Did it work? I felt no better, but man, was I minty fresh.
The angel of mercy
In Las Vegas there is a company called Hangover Heaven. It’s a multipronged service involving intravenous hydration and vitamin therapy, an amino acid cocktail, headache and nausea meds, an oxygen mask and a supershot of B vitamins. There are packages: The Redemption cure is $159, Salvation is $199 and Rapture is $259 (a word rarely associated with hangovers). For $300, Dr. Burke and his team will come to your hotel for in-room therapy. To the Vegas tourists shelling out for in-room therapy, I say man up and eat some eggs.
Egging you on
Egg yolks contain large amounts of cysteine, which breaks down the dastardly acetaldehyde; yolk is even available in pill form. The issue with eggs is how many and in combination with what other fats? Purists go for the Prairie Oyster, which for me is just, no: raw eggs, broken in a glass, yolks intact, mixed with Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, salt and ground black pepper. I still avert my gaze from that scene in Rocky. On the other end of the spectrum, the Monte Cristo sandwich is just too much of everything: a deep-fried, sugar-dusted, jam-accessorized French toast cheesy breakfast sandwich, like that trampy girl in high school who didn’t know when to put down the blue eye shadow. What works: toad in the hole. Frying pan, butter, two slices of rye with centers removed (use a funny cookie cutter; it’s cheering), two eggs in the holes, hot sauce.
I’ve never been to Korea, but holy geez, it has a lot of hangover foods. In May, the South Koreans debuted a hangover-curing ice cream bar called Gyeondyo-bar, grapefruit flavored with a small amount of Asian raisin tree extract, soon to kill at a 7-Eleven near you. But the classic remedy is gamjatang, or pork spine soup. I believe in the restorative powers of Vietnamese pho, Jewish matzo ball and Mexican menudo (best one: Acapulco Mexican Grocery in Tampa), but I had to go in search of gamjatang. Sa Ri One in Tampa serves it as a regular part of the menu ($13.95 for a big bowl): rich broth, slowly building heat, lots of floating green onion and potato. As a hangover cure, it’s excellent, a bowl of white rice scoopable into the soup for extra stomach soothing (and to minimize flop sweat).
A watery grave
Commercial hangover cures are a $700 million business, says Ben Queen, who is debuting one called No Evidence this fall. He’s my high school friend’s dentist’s boyfriend (because, Facebook) in Los Gatos, Calif., and his product is essentially crazy alkaline water. A water pH level of seven is neutral, so 11 is like a strong antacid. There are machines that will alkalize your water (Korea again), but I figured I could make my own. I bought the most alkaline water I could find (Italian Acqua Panna is a little over 8, but Zephyrhills is no slouch at 7.5) and stirred in baking soda. I didn’t have any pH papers, so I winged it. Result: disgusting, had me reconsidering Cheetos and soy chai.
I'll keep the hangover.