Holiday Survival Guide: There's Always a Morning After

Hangovers, like hurricanes, have their season. Experts identify this chaotic interlude as extending roughly from the Thanksgiving holiday to the end of the first week of the New Year. Each victim suffers during this period according to his or her particular indulgence. The most fortunate can classify their bouts according to the year in which the attack occurs; other afflicted souls must, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, label their tempests of immoderation according to the alphabet, beginning, for instance, with Hangover Alvin and ending, in the most active seasons, with Hangover Zenobia.

Hangovers descend on their victims with varying degrees of force. A Class One hangover, for example, not only entails a headache that assails the walls of the skull with the ferocity of sustained cannon fire, but also a baked Saharan dryness of the mouth and vision comparable in clarity to the waters of the Black Lagoon. A Class Two case adds nausea akin to what a test pilot might achieve at two g’s accompanied by the gastric equivalent of Krakatoa’s legendary 1883 eruption. A hangover of Class Three magnitude (which seldom lasts fewer than two days) sours the pot still further by all but paralyzing the subject and generating ocular and auditory hallucinations of a nature one does not wish to contemplate.

Sadly, the modern medical profession remains somewhat indifferent to these symptoms. The current wisdom among physicians seems to be that those of us who have mixed our drinks can lie in them, so to speak. Yet such prim thinking has not always prevailed. The ancient Romans prescribed raw owls’ eggs, as well as salted fish mashed into an emulsion with juniper berries, cloves, and peppercorns—presumably as a purgative. Although the snake oil that medicine men of the Old West peddled consisted of only water and a few herbs, these homespun frontier therapies at least claimed to treat hangovers, along with cancer, gangrene, and a dozen other ailments. Traditional French relief—though not of professional origin—took the form of potage St. Germaine, a rococo concoction involving split peas, salt pork, massive quantities of cream, and lettuce that had more the appearance of a hangover’s aftermath than of a cure. The latter’s Latin American equivalent is menudo, a brew of honeycomb tripe, hominy, and calves’ feet intended to purge poisons from the beleaguered body, while farther north, in Quebec, an awe-inspiring assemblage of French fries, meat gravy, and cheese, known as poutine, serves as the restorative of choice.

In defiance of their more puritan­ical colleagues, a handful of Soviet medical scientists did, at the height of the Cold War, pursue an alternative to these more primitive remedies. Though they set out to discover a substance that would enable KGB operatives to drink their adversaries under the table, these physicians isolated a compound, known as RU-21, that proved effective at enhancing the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol and blocking the buildup of acetaldehyde, the toxin responsible for much of the drinker’s distress. Marketed in the United States in a slightly altered form as the dietary supplement Rebound, this substance continues to undergo more extensive testing in college dorms and nightclubs around the country.

A less clinical and more aesthetically appealing treatment can be found at the New York Mandarin Oriental’s spa. The two-hour detoxification program commences with the gentle sipping of tea to stimulate the metabolism, followed by a “body polish” to bring luster back to the alcohol-deadened skin. A deep-tissue massage with juniper oil increases the blood flow and flushes out toxins. A reflexology session reenergizes the liver, kidneys, and intestines, while the pièce de résistance, a seaweed wrap, completes the extraction of pollutants. But, cautions a spokesperson for the spa, there are drawbacks: “We have to warn our clients about the smells they are about to encounter in this procedure,” she cautions. “They are not pleasant.”

Neither, for that matter, is the prairie oyster—perhaps the best-known, yet least-tried, cure. Still, trial and error has taught a few of us that the “hair of the dog” remains the speediest and surest method of addressing alcohol-related complaints. After all, the Pick-Me-Up (Dubonnet, cognac, anisette, lemon peel, and egg white, shaken) has never let anyone down. And for Class Three cases, the Sea Captain’s Special remains the only recourse. A revitalizing potion combining two jiggers of rye, a lump of sugar, two dashes of absinthe, and champagne to fill the glass, this medicinal miracle takes the most practical approach of all: putting one’s hangover off until the next day.

Photo by James Lipman
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