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Episode 180 – Horseradish Hijinks (Breaking Bloody – Part 4.2)

Because if I had to guess, when bartender Pete Petiot included his first few dashes of black pepper and Cayenne pepper in his Bloody Mary, he did so based solely on instinct. He didn’t know what we know about the chemical and biological structures responsible for the flavors that we love, so I think we have a genuine opportunity here to veer off from the trail breadcrumbs our mixological ancestors left for us and strike out for new and exciting places.

Spice and Hangover Symptoms

Here’s Dr. Alissa Nolden’s thoughts on what subjects we might study (in a perfect world) to better understand the specific mechanisms that govern the relationship between the Bloody Mary and the hangover symptoms that it’s often deployed to combat.

I love thinking about hypothetical research questions, and I when I was thinking about this question, I had two things that I was curious about.

One, I think would be great to see how many people actually find [a Bloody Mary] to be beneficial or helpful. So can can you create a hangover or kind of recreate a hangover for a different for all these participants and give them maybe everything but capsaicin or anything but ethanol and then test out to see if it’s the capsaicin, see if it’s ethanol, or is it just the high concentration of vegetables?

I also wondered about the heat level. Is something like a higher heat level helping you to perspirate more? Maybe we could give subjects a couple of different hangovers and test different concentrations of capsaicin to see if it’s really just the capsaicin alone that can kind of revive you.

We also asked Sarah Kolk about what she thinks about the Bloody Mary’s role as a hangover cure. Here’s what she had to say:

I think an important thing to address about a hangover is part of it’s dehydration, and electrolytes are crucial to hydration. So even though it’s maybe not the best idea to overload yourself with sodium, your body isn’t very good at distinguishing: “I should really have more calcium and magnesium and potassium right now.” Also, tomatoes do have a fair amount of potassium.

As far as the hair of the dog aspect that people consume Bloody Marys for, I think that’s always been a really effective strategy when you’re trying to dull one sense – the dull pains, maybe a headache or body ache – that you would be experiencing during a hangover. Maybe I’d even liken it to biting a rag while you’re having a bullet removed in a movie – like activating that trigeminal system could maybe distract from some of the discomfort. 

Also according to Dr. Nolden, it’s possible to experience nausea from ingesting spicy foods, and that certainly isn’t something you necessarily want when you’re hungover.

If you think back to our work with Benign Masochism, you might recall Paul Rozin’s finding that people tend to enjoy levels of spice that are just below what they can comfortably tolerate. And if you assume that your spice tolerance when you’re hungover is probably a bit lower than it might be otherwise, then my guess is – without having run any experiments – that a moderate level of spice in a Bloody Mary probably yields optimum benefits without pushing you over the edge into nausea. 

Resolving the Language Problem

But what is “Moderate”? What’s moderate to me might not be moderate to you, which raises questions about the inherent “unknowability” of flavor experience.

The worry here, of course, is that no matter how hard we try to study the experience of spice, we’re always going to be talking at cross-purposes. My spicy will never be your spicy, and your spicy – let’s be honest – will probably never approach our friend John Shope’s definition of spicy. And when you look at things that way, it’s very easy to gaze too long and too intently into the postmodern abyss of infinite regress.

But I think the Bloody Mary is actually perfect foil to this intellectual trap. No two recipes are the same, and yet we rarely feel “anxious” just ordering one from a bar in the same way we might feel anxious about ordering an Old Fashioned or a Martini. Unlike our favorite boozy, stirred drinks, the seemingly infinite variations of the Bloody Mary seem to all aggregate into some sort of universally-shared mean or ideal of “goodness” that exists regardless of capsaicin or horseradish, regardless of A1 or Worcestershire, regardless of all the other choices we could possibly make in the formulation.

I might be wrong, but I think that “goodness” arises not from a particular ingredient or even from a proportional balance between ingredients, but from an emergent energy or propulsion generated from the combination of these disparate forces when they coalesce in the glass.

What do I mean by this?

Spice as the “Motor” of the Bloody Mary

Well, remember back when we talked about benign masochism and uncovered the almost paradoxical finding that the experience of pain increases our sensitivity to and liking of various tastes and flavors? Whenever I run into a paradox like this, I think of it like a motor, where two opposite polarities of an electromagnet keep turning over upon one another, turning the drive shaft and propelling the vehicle forward. These little motors are some of my favorite things to think about, especially when they happen in the taste and flavor world.

If you’re hung over, and you sip a spicy Bloody Mary, each sip enacts something that might be compared to one revolution of a drive shaft. Moderate spice creates moderate pain, which both distracts you from the symptoms of your hangover and provides greater appreciation of the other flavors in the drink, which prompts you to take another sip, where the process is repeated until before you know it, you’ve finished your drink.

As you look at your empty glass and appreciate the kind green of your celery stick garnish, your server or your host stops by and asks if you’d like another, mentioning that your chicken and waffles will be ready in just a few minutes. You say yes, and as the words leave your mouth you realize you’re not the same person that you were when you took the first sip of your Bloody Mary.

This is the definition of a phase shift. Before the Bloody Mary, you were one person, and now you are a decidedly different one with a decidedly different set of homeostatic feelings. Did the sodium and potassium and vodka and other nutrients and lubricants in the drink do their work? Of course. These can be compared to the transmission and fuel system and frame of a vehicle that allow it to transport you from point A to point B. But I would argue that the driving force in a Bloody Mary – the motor that turns due to the opposing forces of pain and pleasure – can only be attributed to spice.

In the presence of moderate amounts of pepper, hot sauce, or horseradish, pleasure emerges from pain, motion from stillness. And although there are many ways to describe our experience of spice, and many different preferences for what provides that spice or how intensely we perceive it, one thing is for sure: if you ain’t got no motor, you ain’t got no car. And if you ain’t got no spice, I’d argue you ain’t got no Bloody Mary.


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