Dear Glutton: The Cure for an Existential Hangover

The best dish to wake up the senses and shake off the gloom


Dear Glutton,

I don't know if it's the muggy weather, the constant stream of stressful political news, or my lackluster personal life, but lately I've found myself feeling kind of generally blah. What are some good dishes to wake me from my funk?

– Tired

One of my favorite concepts in modern food writing is Kingsley Amis' idea of the existential hangover. His theory is this: There are various navigable stages that follow a night of overindulgence, some of which are physical and combated with relative simplicity. But it is the metaphysical, internal aspect of the hangover that is the most difficult to overcome. The existential hangover often takes the form of a malaise that attaches itself to the base of your brain stem like a fatty tumor, filtering everything that happens through a thick, mucusy layer of detached fuzz. And that is what I, a nonprofessional stranger who knows nothing about your personal circumstances or brain chemistry, suspect is happening here – an existential hangover of one kind or another. The damn things seem to be going around lately.

So, dear tired reader, you're burned out. Maybe you've been blasting your brain with too many substances, regulated or unregulated; maybe you haven't yet succumbed to the temptation to turn off your New York Times text alerts so you can get all your bad news at once, in a big chunk at the end of the day; maybe you're oversocializing or lonely or overcompensating, or working too hard, or not hard enough. Who knows? Something is cutting you off from quotidian joys. The question is, what comes next? Aside from a general re-evaluation of which behaviors make you feel more and less detached from the world, I think that you need to take yourself out for a meal to mark the moment of change you're making for yourself.

Food can be an important part of the rituals we use to mark life transitions, happy and sad, as a community. When things change, we get together to mark the change with our friends: goodbye dinners and welcome home brunches, cocktail parties for engagements and promotions, sympathy baking and congratulatory drinks. These are all fun and valuable moments of connection. But I think there should be a ritualized aspect to eating for private moments of change as well, a moment for you to sit down with yourself and just be in the world, with no expectations and no intercessory layer of blah.

One way to go with this would be an elaborate and inventive multicourse meal. I've suggested this as a cure for depression of a different kind before, and I think it can be effective when the issue is feelings of doubt about your own capacity to go out and enjoy the world. But your case seems to call for something sloppier, more private. A shock of flavor and sensory intensity that will help you hit the reset button, hard. What your existential hangover calls for is a gigantic bowl of menudo.

While it's more traditionally used as a cure for your more basic, physical form of hangover, a solid dose of menudo is the perfect malaise-curing one-two punch of sensory intensity; menudo is funky, salty, savory, sharp with the intense smoky heat of chili, the sourness of lime squeezed over the top brightening your bowl. I suggest you make a day of it, driving to Chavelo's. They may be out in Buda, but their menudo (served only on Saturdays) is well worth the drive, with a thick, dark, flavorful broth, savory and dense with spices. Order a big bowl from one of the friendly waitresses, sit in the corner, and take your time slurping. Wear a shirt you don't like too much, some old jeans. Get messy. Have fun. Try not to worry for a little while.

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