Much like the philosopher’s stone or the Holy Grail, the perfect hangover cure has been the subject of endless inquiries by some of history’s greatest minds, and has proved just as elusive. Those who do possess it are often fictional or demigods, or both: who can forget the mystery drink concocted by P.G. Wodehouse’s inimitable Jeeves on his first day reporting to work for Bertie (this was itself a variation on the oft-touted prairie oyster)? Kingsley Amis made a long study of hangovers and their cures, much of which can be found in Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, and in which he notes that “few writers can be taken as metaphorically illuminating the world of the hangover while ostensibly dealing with something else. Perhaps Franz Kafka’s story ‘The Metamorphosis,’ which starts with the hero waking up to find he has turned into a man-sized cockroach, is the best literary treatment of all. The central image could hardly be better chosen, and there is a telling touch in the nasty way everybody goes on at the chap.”
In recent years the search for a magical elixir—and the fervent belief that one exists—seems to have declined. Last night, at a hipper-than-thou watering place in Portland, Oregon, my infuriating but wonderful hometown, I conducted a brief survey among my peers, asking them for the most farfetched anecdotal suggestions they had heard over the course of their drinking lives.
“Lots of water,” one man said, earnestly.
He shrugged. “That’s pretty much it. Oh, and get lots of sleep.” He looked over to his girlfriend. “But Amreen’s aunt always tells us to do something weird. What does she tell us to do?”
“Drink Propel. You know, the Gatorade water.”
As I made my way around the table, Gatorade or something similar was the most popular suggestion. (To be fair I’m not very original either, strawberry Powerade being my remedy of choice.) One participant swore by electrolyte crystals, and most also suggested staying hydrated while drinking—i.e. alternating drinks with glasses of water—so as to avoid getting a hangover in the first place. People mentioned the conventional wisdom of getting a greasy breakfast, but most didn’t actually do it; cycling enthusiasts, of which there were several, recommended exercise; the most original suggestion was pho. No one seriously suggested the hair of the dog.
I was inspired to take this survey because, the night before, I had found and immediately become obsessed with a study published by Frank M. Paulsen in The Journal of American Folklore in 1961, which suggests raw onion sandwiches, soda crackers soaked in blackberry brandy, B12 injections, and cunnilingus—and that’s just for openers. Contrast the narrowness of these modern suggestions with the range of what Paulsen found.
Though sadly never published in book form and available only through print archives or scholarly databases, Paulsen’s study is an incomparable source of information for the most inveterate drunk, and a delightful piece of light reading for the sober (especially those who don’t wish to remain in such a state). Paulsen, then employed at Wayne State University, undertook the study after becoming fascinated by the diversity of anecdotal hangover cures, writing of the project’s inception that:
While my wife and I were sitting at the bar of Topinka’s Restaurant in Detroit, waiting to be seated for dinner, the bartender with whom we had been chatting approached our end of the bar, reached down and extracted a bottle of warm beer from a case sitting on the floor and turning to us said, ‘Guy must have a hangover—he’s ordering a warm beer.’ I thought this to be a curious remark and, later, questioned him more closely concerning traditions associated with treating or curing a hangover. By the time my wife and I left an hour or so later, I had collected no less than eight different hangover cures, all, as I was later to discover, a part of that gigantic vortex of folklore almost fanatically believed in by the general drinking public. And so the parturition of this collection.
Paulsen conducted the study by surveying nearly 150 subjects in numerous bars, restaurants, and clubs is Detroit, Cleveland, Montpelier, Buffalo, Utica, Omaha, Los Angeles, Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto, and published his results as “A Hair of the Dog and Some Other Hangover Cures from Popular Tradition.” In his notes, Paulsen also attempted to pinpoint the moment at which the proverbial hair ceased to be referred to literally; the earliest instance he could find of the phrase used to describe a hangover cure occurred in John Heywood’s 1546 book, A Dialogue Conteinyng The Nomber in Effect of All the Prouverbes in the English Tongue, which included the line “I pray thee leat me and my fellow haue a heare of the dog that bote us last night. Paulsen also located the phrase in Rabelais’ Gargantu and Pantagruel, Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fayre (“Twas a hot night with some of us last night, John. Shall we pluck a hair of the same wolf today…?”) and Jonathan Swift’s A Proposal for Correcting the English Tongue (“[Derbyshire ale] is apt to fox one; but out way is to take a hair of the same dog the next morning”).
Most of the study’s subjects remained anonymous, as, in Paulsen’s words, “I was unable (or thought it unwise as the case might be) to ask for names and biographical information from over half my informants. The subject matter of the cures and the places where they were collected should justify this high degree of anonymity.” Paulsen also collected 538 hangover cures from surveys given to 237 students at Wayne State, and though he did not include them in the article due to space constraints, he summarized the results in his introduction. Of his participants “only thirteen…had no hangover cure lore,” and “almost half of the informants (109) stated specifically that they, themselves, had never had hangovers, ‘but…’”
Twenty-seven students mentioned an ice pack on the forehead, though Paulsen believed that this remedy “doubtless came to students through the movies (it seems Hollywood knows that it need only show a character with an ice pack on his head to convey to the public the impression that the subject has a hangover),” especially in light of the fact that only one of the subjects he interviewed in his visits to bars and restaurants gave the same advice. Half of Paulsen’s student subjects suggested exercise, which also turned up rarely in the field, and his youngest subject (a 16-year-old girl whom he noted had been “born and reared in Detroit”) was the only one of the students who suggested sex as a remedy, and just six students wrote “take a hair of the dog that bit you.” (Paulsen mentioned, somewhat gleefully, that “the sixteen year old had it!”) Tomato juice was the most popular remedy, with 93 mentions.
In his primary survey of bar patrons, bartenders, waiters, and restaurant workers, the most popular remedies Paulsen found were tomato juice, raw eggs, milk, sex, and (far and away the most popular) some form of alcohol. Even some of the more obscure remedies seem reasonable to the modern-day reader, or at least plausible enough to attempt (who hasn’t had a hangover bad enough to make them try out 54—a fruit cocktail dressed with vodka—at least once?), while some are wonderfully byzantine or absurd: papaya juice, inhaling gasoline fumes, and strenuous exercise followed by drinking buttermilk straight from the bottle are all mentioned below.
All of which made me wonder as I was conducting my survey the other night: was I asking the wrong people, or had drinking culture in America changed to such a degree that we had lost touch with the “gigantic vortex of folklore” that had so obsessed Paulsen? As a people, I think that we do know more about the working of the human body—and regard them far less skittishly—than we did in 1961, and I also have little doubt, product of my time and culture that I am, that hydration and electrolytes is a more effective hangover cure than, say, a can of peaches or a glass of hot prune juice. But by going directly to something we both know will always be effective, while also knowing that the only real cure is time, we might be missing out on the ritual and fervent magical thinking contained in some of the remedies below.
Following my bar survey, I decided to widen my research base and called my mother, a retired physician, who recalled a man she’d done her residency with, and who once hooked himself up to a saline drip at the end of a bender to prevent a hangover the next morning. The delivery system, I thought, was more ingenious than the grad-student solutions I had heard the night before, but similar in its reliance on a common hydrating liquid, and so I called my 67-year old Australian father, thinking that if he didn’t know of any strange anecdotal remedies I may just have to resign myself to a world without hot prune juice.
“Of course I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he said, but then proceeded to recommend “Worcestershire sauce, a raw egg, and Angostura bitters,” “a good Technicolor yawn” (his euphemism of choice for vomiting), and “a good workout.”
“A workout?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I used to work in a concrete pipe factory, and the guy that was the manager, he was Scottish and he loved his whiskey, and we used to go out and get a bit snockered, and he’d come into work the next morning with a big hangover and the first thing he’d do was, he’d start shoveling concrete to make pipes.”
This was enough for me. Scanning through Paulsen’s list—which contains, one hopes, more remedies than you will ever require—you’ll see that some entries are interesting purely for their content, others for the narrative that comes along with them, and still others interesting for the biographical information Paulsen was able to gather from his subjects—this alone suggesting a whole novel’s worth of narrative to anyone intrigued enough to conjure it. The best hangover cures are great not because they’re effective but because they come from or lead into stories—stories of last night and other last nights, stories of who they came from, or how they came to be. In other words, they might just be the most underrated kind of bar story, and one we need to pay attention to if we don’t want our parents’ and grandparents’ generation to put us to shame.
In the course of his survey, Paulsen collected 261 separate hangover remedies from 149 informants; I’ve excerpted 91 of them here, with an eye toward culling the strangest, the most unappetizing or strangely appealing, and most of all the ones that contain the best stories. In other words: we have no more excuses to be sensible and drink our Gatorade. The next time I wake up reeling, I’m going to eat a big bunch of parsley, then go on a fishing trip. (Note: All italicized sections of biographical description preserve Paulsen’s phrasing, as it often says just as much about the researcher as it does about his subjects.)
1. White bread
2. A dozen raw oysters
3. Mashed potatoes
4. “Eat a white Bermuda onion like an apple. Wait half an hour, then take a good shot.” —George Gust, Club 58, Detroit. Restaurant and bar owner, white, male, about 28; born and reared in Detroit; of Greek extraction.
5. Buttered celery
6. “Cut a big piece of watermelon, if you can get hold of one, and punch holes in the meat with a fork. Pour half a pint of gin over that and eat it down. Be careful of the seeds; they’ll kill ya.”—Mr. Meschner, Hawkins Bar, Detroit. Retired; white, male, about 70; born and raised in Detroit, where he worked for the Ford Motor Company for some 50 years; now spends most of his time wandering from bar to bar in the northwestern section of Detroit; quite active for a man his age. (Meschner’s other recommendation: “get one of those little dime apple pies and cut a hole in the top crust; pour in as much brandy as it’ll take. Eat it with a tablespoon.”)
7. “Eat oranges. Not just the juice, but the whole goddamned thing. Peel ‘em back and eat the stuff and all. Eat six or a dozen if you’ve got to. You need that vitamin B. That’s what makes you nervous and crappy.”—“Bearman” Cambel, Bouche Bar, Detroit. Used car salesman; white male, about 50. A huge man, about 7 feet tall and 400 pounds in weight.
8. Hot won ton soup
9. “Open a can of tomatoes, hot or cold, either way.”—Anonymous, Tanampa Club, Detroit. Maintenance worker; white, male, about 55; born and reared in Mexico; a quite friendly gent who insisted on buying me a shot of Tequila and instructing me in how to drink it in the traditional way, with salt and lemon.
10. Rare beef
11. “A big bunch of parsley.”—Mrs. Cynthia Parkins, Bouche Bar, Detroit. Saleslady; white, female; about 65.
12. Pickled herring
13. Sour herring
14. “Any kind of fish.”—Mary, Belmont Lounge, Detroit. Waitress; white, female, about 45. (In his notes, Paulsen suggests that fish may be a relatively popular remedy because it “has traditionally been considered and aphrodisiac”—a connection that seems more meaningful once one reads items 83 through 89.)
15. “The worst thing you can do on a hangover is to eat pork. I’ve been drinking for sixty years and have had a few hangovers, but none of them were as bad as when I ate pork. I love pork, but I never eat it on a hangover.”—Mr. Capadine, Club 58, Detroit. Manufacturer of tool and die parts; signed the first Cadillac automobile—an amusing gent, perhaps not completely reliable.
16. Raw oatmeal
17. “Eat raw peanut butter right out of the jar.”—Anonymous, Hawkins’ Bar, Detroit. Commercial artist; white, male, about 40; aggressively interested in my collecting project; quite a heavy drinker.
18. Soda crackers and sparkling water
19. “Eat as many scrambled eggs as you can.”—Anonymous, Danny’s Gin Mill, Detroit. Bartender; white, male, about 40.
20. “Eat honey—three or four teaspoons with black coffee. Not in the coffee, just eat it while you’re sipping the coffee.”—Anonymous, Normandy Bar, Detroit. Occupation unknown; white, female, about 23.
22. “Many people chew raw parsnips to get rid of that morning aftertaste.”—Bruce Millan, Momo’s Bar, Detroit. Theatrical producer and bartender; white, male, about 35; has his own company of child actors who irregularly perform in plays throughout Michigan; also tends a bar full time; also is working for a Master’s degree with a specialty in folk drama at Wayne University.
24. Raw onion sandwiches
25. Canned peaches
26. “Eat a good greasy meal—the greasier the better. The grease, it stops a steam from a stomach from goin’ to the brain—the hot steam. You need grease. Too much steam from stomach affect brain. The doctor, he tell me this. Plenty greasy food, never go wrong.”—Tom Donhm, food time market, Detroit. Grocery store owner; white, male, about 40; born and reared in Iraq; has lived in Detroit for 10 years.
27. “Eat dry toast. Anything that doesn’t contain oils will help.”—Anonymous, the Lobster Pot Restaurant, Montpelier, Vermont. Waitress; white, female, about 21; wife of graduate student at the University of Vermont.
28. Tomato juice (Paulsen’s note: “over fifty of the listed informants mentioned tomato juice as a cure.”)
29. Chilled tomato juice
30. Boiled tomato juice with a pat of butter on top
31. “I’m a young fellow; I can stand it. Sometimes I might feel the need of something; then I take tomato juice with an ice cube. But when you’re young like me, you can just sleep it off.”—Gene, Bouche Bar, Detroit. Short order cook; Oriental, male, about 25; he has not missed spending every evening at the Bouche in 2 years (claims the bartender), yet no one there knows his last name or exactly where he works; drinks beer only, but in great quantities—8 to 10 bottles each evening.
32. Tomato beer
33. Gin and tomato juice
34. “Bloody Mary: That’s tomato juice and vodka. Put a little of that—what d’ya call it?—Worcestershire sauce—in it. Bring you right on out…Jesus! [gesture of arms skyward].”—Harold Lucas, Club 58, Detroit. Waiter; Negro, male, about 60; born and reared in New York City; has been a waiter for 40 years and has lived in Detroit for the past 8 years.
35. Rhine wine and tomato juice
36. “Mix cinnamon in wine and sip on it. Any kind of sweet wine will do.”—George Fonte, Club 58, Detroit. Bartender; white, male, about 45; born and reared in Wisconsin; has been tending bar, mostly at exclusive private clubs, in Detroit for 20 years; he was my most cooperative and informative informant. (Fonte also suggested: milk; lemon sherbet; Mashed strawberries and sugar dressed with egg whites, gin, and chartreuse; a whiskey sours; salty dogs; an orange blossoms; a shot of vodka mixed with equal parts tomato juice and clam juice; sherry mixed with an egg yolk and served at room temperature; a shot of Pernod mixed with an egg white and four dashes of bitters; and warm seltzer water mixed with bitters.)
38. Oyster juice
39. Hot prune juice
40. Stewed prunes and gin
41. An orange dressed with soy sauce
42. “I’ve heard there’s some special vitamin or mineral or something in fresh papaya juice that will cure a hangover in a minute. The trouble is, where do you get it in Detroit?”—Philomena Van Allen, Bouche Bar, Detroit. Bookkeeper; white, female, about 37; born and reared in Chicago.
43. Ice cream mixed with buttermilk
45. “Eat something like spaghetti with a good hot sauce on it. It’s the spices in the sauce that do it.”
46. Beer with a spoonful of salt in it
47. Warm beer
48. Flat beer
49. Cold beer (suggested by over fifty respondents)
50. “A shot and a beer—a stale beer if you’ve got any. Break a couple eggs and put them in the beer. Don’t eat the eggs. Let [the hangover] fight itself out. But if you get hungry after a couple of doses, eat the eggs.”—Anonymous, Webb Wood Inn, Detroit. Occupation unknown; white, male, about 65; apparently quite a heavy drinker.
51. “Put the white of an egg or the whole egg in beer. It’s the white of the egg that does you the most good. It coats your insides.”—Mr. Curly, Club 58, Detroit. Salesman; white, male, about 45. Born and reared in Boston.
52. Whiskey with milk and sugar
53. A gin and soda
54. “Avoid gin.”—Anonymous, Topinka’s Resaurant, Detroit. Bartender; white, male, about 40.
55. A fruit cocktail with vodka mixed in
56. “Take a double shot of bonded whiskey and lace it with black pepper. Drink it with black coffee.”—Mel Costa, Mel’s Steak-Out, Detroit restaurant owner, white, male about 45. Of Greek origin, and quite proud of it.
57. “My dad used to have a hangover at least twice a week, usually on the weekend. When he woke up that way, he’d take a dozen or so soda crackers and crush them in a cereal bowl and pour about a half a cup of brandy, I believe it was blackberry or cherry, over the cracker and eat them. Me, I just take the brandy.”—Anonymous, Eckner’s Restaurant, Detroit. Stenographer; white, female, around 30.
58. Three aspirins taken with Coke, followed by buttermilk soup
59. “Take cold, jellied consommé and mix in some Worcestershire, celery salt, garlic powder, and about four ounces of vodka. Your secretary will hate you, but you’ll be able to get through till lunch.”—Anonymous, Club 58, Detroit. General Motors executive; white, male, about 45.
60. “I used to wait on this millionaire who owned the Lincoln Motor Company. I always knew when he had a hangover. He’d order a ‘Monster.’ I guess it worked for him. You take a teaspoon of vinegar, a teaspoon of Worcestershire, a dash of pepper and beat that together with the white of an egg. Put it in a bowl and float the egg yolk on top. He’d sprinkle that with nutmeg and eat it.”—Russell Rhue, Club 58, Detroit. Waiter; Negro, male, about 30; born and reared in Cleveland, Ohio; has been a waiter all his adult life; an extremely self-assured and independent individual whose tenure as a waiter at Club 58 was limited to one week. (Rhue also recommended: hot corned beef sandwiches with plenty of pepper and ice cream “by the pint till you feel good again.”)
61. Baking soda mixed with warm water
62. “There’s a pill of some kind that will cure a hangover in a minute. Doctors won’t tell you what it is because they want you to get hung over—that way you don’t drink so much. If you could find out what that pill is and patent it, you’d make a million.”—Philomena Van Allen (Paulsen’s note: “The curious belief that there somewhere exists an exact element or formula which in some magical fashion will cure the hangover instantaneously is an underlying motif in many of the items in this collection.”)
64. Steam baths
65. “Relax; think of nothing.”—Jean Theoret, Neptune Lounge, Montreal, Canada. Bartender; white, male, about 35; born and reared in Montreal; of French extraction.
66. “Avoid cold water.”—Anonymous, Collingwood Inn, Detroit. Occupation unknown; Negro male about 50.
67. A glass of cold milk before bed
68. A B12 injection
69. Don’t smoke while you drink
70. “If you have a wine hangover, stay away from all kinds of liquids. Don’t take a drink of water, not even a bowl of soup. Don’t even brush your teeth. If you do, you’ll get drunk all over again—especially if you drank champagne the night before.”—Lou Falk, Mel’s Steak-Out, Detroit. Bartender; white, male, about 40; born and reared in Detroit; has been a bartender for 15 years.
71. An ounce of vinegar in ice water
72. A teaspoon of spirits of ammonia in a glass of water
73. Stick your head under the faucet
74. A cold shower
75. An icebag on the head
76. “Take the day off and go up to a brook and fish. Let the breeze blow on your head and forget your troubles.”—Al Mahony, The Pines Tavern, Montpelier, Vermont. Painter; white, male, about 60; native Vermonter; claims to have drunk a fifth of whiskey a day for the past 40 years.
77. “100% oxygen will cure you in ten minutes. As anyone who flew planes during the war.”—Anonymous, Momo’s Bar, Detroit. Occupation unkown; white, male, about 40; served in United States Air Force as pilot during World War II.
78. “Drink milk all day long because it’s loaded with oxygen.”—Dean Paulsen, Detroit, Michigan. Teacher; white, female, 34; born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska; has been teaching for 5 years; previously working as a secretary; has lived in Detroit for 3 years. Not too bad looking. Wife of the compiler.
79. Take a walk
80. Go back to bed
81. “I’ve known people who said the smell of gasoline will cure you. Just breathe the fumes—as much as you can take.”—John Goodgame, Club 58, Detroit. Waiter; Negro, male,a bout 45; works part time at the Wayne Club in Detroit as a waiter; worked for 20 years as a dining car waiter on a Pullman for the Union Pacific Railroad; born and reared in the South; has lived in Detroit for 5 years.
82. “This is nasty and brutal, but it’s a sure cure. When you get up thinking you’ll never lie till noon, first drink coffee with lots of sugar and heavy cream in it. It’ll make you vomit. Then drink a glass of warm water for a second flush. After vomiting the second time, you can hold down a drink.”—Anonymous, Bouche Bar, Detroit. Champagne salesman; white, male, about 45; very talkative and willing informant who was modishly dressed and apparently college trained.
83. Chewing tobacco
84. Work a sweat up, then drink buttermilk straight from the bottle, take a hot shower, and go to bed.
85. “If you’ve been drinking rum the night before, the only thing that’ll help is a piece of tail.”—Anonymous, Bouche Bar, Detroit. Jockey; white, male, about 35; no biographical information.
86. “A good jump is the fastest cure.”—Max N—, Bouche Bar, Detroit. Bartender; white, male, about 40; has an unsavory background as a bookie and confidence man of which he seems quite proud.
87. “A man—that’s the best cure—a man.”—Anonymous, Bouche Bar, Detroit. Milliner; white, female, about 40.
88. “Get yourself a young virgin not over eighteen and … [perform cunnilingus—vividly described]” (Paulsen’s elision)—Anonymous, Detroit. Dentist; Negro, male, about 40; born and reared in the South; had been practicing dentistry quite successfully in Detroit for the past five years.
89. “There’s a certain kind of hangover that can’t be cured in any way but one. When you’ve got that kind of hangover, you’ll make your wife stay home from work. Have a couple of beers later, and you’re all set.”—Anonymous, Fisher’s Bar, Detroit. Bartender; white, male, about 40; of Syrian ancestry; born and reared in Detroit; boasts of being married five times; seems to enjoy talking of his sexual prowess.
90. “The mental hangover is the worst kind. If you just feel sick, you can take aspirin and another drink, but that won’t help your mental condition. You’ve got to get your mind on something else. A party [evidently fellatio] is the best thing to set you up. I knew a fellow who had to masturbate every time he had a hangover when he wasn’t living with someone. I could never do that, but sometimes you do feel that way.”—Anonymous, Diplomat Bar, Detroit. Performer; white, male, about 25; a professional female impersonator, admittedly homosexual, quite aggressively so.
91. “You’ve asked the right man. I sell the cause; I got the cure. When you wake up that way, first go to the store. I mean go to the store, Dad. You open that icebox door, get talking to the lettuce, and you could get mixed up with the milk bottles. That’s not good. Buy an avocado, not a hard one, not a soft one. It’s got to be just right—tender to the touch, but not too easy. When you get it home, peel it, but peel it gently, so there’s plenty of green left. Cut it in slivers, if your hand’s steady enough. Salt it light, ever so light. It’s better to use your right hand if you’re right-handed and you haven’t cut yourself yet. Eat that, like it is. Never chill it. It’s hard enough to taste it as it is. No, I’m not kidding, eat the avocado. Then you have sex—you know, nothing in bad taste, not fast, not vulgar. Take your time. Lie there a little while; catch a little shut-eye if you can. By no means go again. After you’re back down on the ground, I mean really down and relaxed, get up and step into the shower. The water’s got to be just right—not too hot, not too cold, just right. Spend a half hour there if you got to. When you step out, walk up to the mirror. Shave. Then use that sexy lotion. You walk out feeling new. You’re ready for your first drink of the day.”—John Leon, St. Paul Hotel, Los Angeles, California (by correspondence). Bar manager; white, male, about 35; born and reared in Los Angeles; of Mexican extraction; has been tending bar for 13 years.
Sarah Marshall is looking forward to trying cures #6, 34, 64, 76, and 91.