Food and Drink: May 2008 Archives

A fine tradition of service to humanity

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Thanks again to The New Yorker, this time for responding to that timeless cry of humanity -- "OH PLEASE MAKE IT STOP!" -- with Joan Acocella's study of the human hangover.

A taste:

Some words for hangover, like ours, refer prosaically to the cause: the Egyptians say they are “still drunk,” the Japanese “two days drunk,” the Chinese “drunk overnight.” The Swedes get “smacked from behind.” But it is in languages that describe the effects rather than the cause that we begin to see real poetic power. Salvadorans wake up “made of rubber,” the French with a “wooden mouth” or a “hair ache.” The Germans and the Dutch say they have a “tomcat,” presumably wailing. The Poles, reportedly, experience a “howling of kittens.” My favorites are the Danes, who get “carpenters in the forehead.” In keeping with the saying about the Eskimos’ nine words for snow, the Ukrainians have several words for hangover. And, in keeping with the Jews-don’t-drink rule, Hebrew didn’t even have one word until recently. Then the experts at the Academy of the Hebrew Language, in Tel Aviv, decided that such a term was needed, so they made one up: hamarmoret, derived from the word for fermentation. (Hamarmoret echoes a usage of Jeremiah’s, in Lamentations 1:20, which the King James Bible translates as “My bowels are troubled.”) There is a biochemical basis for Jewish abstinence. Many Jews—fifty per cent, in one estimate—carry a variant gene for alcohol dehydrogenase. Therefore, they, like the East Asians, have a low tolerance for alcohol.

As for hangover remedies, they are legion. There are certain unifying themes, however. When you ask people, worldwide, how to deal with a hangover, their first answer is usually the hair of the dog. The old faithful in this category is the Bloody Mary, but books on curing hangovers—I have read three, and that does not exhaust the list—describe more elaborate potions, often said to have been invented in places like Cap d’Antibes by bartenders with names like Jean-Marc. An English manual, Andrew Irving’s “How to Cure a Hangover” (2004), devotes almost a hundred pages to hair-of-the-dog recipes, including the Suffering Bastard (gin, brandy, lime juice, bitters, and ginger ale); the Corpse Reviver (Pernod, champagne, and lemon juice); and the Thomas Abercrombie (two Alka-Seltzers dropped into a double shot of tequila). Kingsley Amis suggests taking Underberg bitters, a highly alcoholic digestive: “The resulting mild convulsions and cries of shock are well worth witnessing. But thereafter a comforting glow supervenes.” Many people, however, simply drink some more of what they had the night before. My Ukrainian informant described his morning-after protocol for a vodka hangover as follows: “two shots of vodka, then a cigarette, then another shot of vodka.” A Japanese source suggested wearing a sake-soaked surgical mask.

Application of the hair of the dog may sound like nothing more than a way of getting yourself drunk enough so that you don’t notice you have a hangover, but, according to Wayne Jones, of the Swedish National Laboratory of Forensic Medicine, the biochemistry is probably more complicated than that. Jones’s theory is that the liver, in processing alcohol, first addresses itself to ethanol, which is the alcohol proper, and then moves on to methanol, a secondary ingredient of many wines and spirits. Because methanol breaks down into formic acid, which is highly toxic, it is during this second stage that the hangover is most crushing. If at that point you pour in more alcohol, the body will switch back to ethanol processing. This will not eliminate the hangover—the methanol (indeed, more of it now) is still waiting for you round the bend—but it delays the worst symptoms. It may also mitigate them somewhat. On the other hand, you are drunk again, which may create difficulty about going to work.

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A Really Messed Up Relationship

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This interview with doctor and author Daphne Miller from Gourmet is worth your time.

...the taste of hot is lost from a lot of people’s palates in the U.S., I think. Hot and sour and fermented are all sort of erased from the average American diet, so we basically just have sweet, salty, and fatty.

DM: Absolutely. There is hot, but it’s very combined with sweet. Hot is not actually an instinctual taste that we seek out, like sweet, salty, and fatty; hot is a learned healing taste. So [the food industry has] harnessed the idea that hot is somehow good, but matched it with loads of high fructose corn syrup so that it becomes palatable.

But fermented is probably one of the greatest losses, I’m figuring out. I swear, if we could get everybody in this country to eat one serving a day of a really good-quality yogurt that was relatively unsweetened, and truly made through a fermentation process, I think that in itself would be a major step forward in terms of public health. That, or some other fermented food. But most people have nothing that’s truly fermented in their diet. Even the pickles and sauerkraut and things that you can buy in some supermarkets across America aren’t made through a true fermentation process anymore. So they lack all the health benefits. But recently the medical literature has been showing that genetic information is actually put into our gut through eating fermented foods. It’s becoming really obvious that this plays a key role in everything from food allergies to possible cancer prevention...

CH: And so it’s really telling to look at cultures where Western diseases just don’t exist.

DM: Right. And the proof positive is that we’re exporting this disease now. So effectively. Okinawa was just amazing: You have this culture that is so remarkable for longevity and low rates of cancer, and within one generation, our food corporations have achieved near-magical results in terms of transforming Okinawans into a group of obese diabetics with metabolic syndrome. You have these grandmothers who are 100 watching their great-grandchildren waddle around and suffer from obesity.

Miller's new book, which explores the health benefits of traditional diets from around the world, is going on my "library list."

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Food and Drink category from May 2008.

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