Animated, two-dimensional hands grasp a cartoon glass filled with a bulbous yellow yolk atop a smear of white, two dashes of sauce—red and black—and a pour of clear liquid from a bottle. "Hoo, man—that’s gross," a voice exclaims. "It’s called a prairie oyster," a deep, raspy voice responds, "Good for hangovers." The scene pans up to a man with dark green hair; he pinches his nose and downs the concoction like a shot.
Anime fans will instantly identify this character as Spike Spiegel of the popular television series Cowboy Bebop (he’s a 27-year-old bounty hunter from Mars, born in the year 2044), whereas cocktail connoisseurs will recognize Spiegel’s treatment of the prairie oyster: a short, pungent gulp taken on an empty stomach, usually accompanied by a pounding headache and a case of the shakes.
However, this 1998 reference to the purported hangover cure isn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last. At its most basic, the prairie oyster is composed of a raw egg, a dash each of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, and a quick sprinkle of salt and pepper; and it’s this combination of intriguing ingredients that have made it a favorite (or at least a popularly recommended) morning-after pick-me-up for over century, one that has made appearances in film, television, and literature for almost equally as long.
Like Your Memories of Last Night, the Prairie Oyster's History Is Fuzzy
While the prairie oyster's exact origin is unknown, the hangover remedy became popular in New England around the late 19th century. Rumors about its genesis swirled, but one of the most thorough comes from The "Queen" Cookery Books, a series that was published in 1903 London by S. Beaty-Pownall, the departmental editor of the column "Housewife and Cuisine" for Queen Newspaper, a British society publication. In a section about oyster cocktails, Beaty-Pownall writes:
To this class belongs the well-known "prairie oyster," said to have been invented by a plainsman of the Wild West for the benefit of a sick comrade, who believed that only an oyster would enable him to shake off the fever that was killing him. This "oyster" is prepared by putting a tablespoon of good vinegar, or Worcester sauce at the bottom of a wineglass, and slipping into this very carefully the broken yolk of a raw egg, dusting this with salt and a little freshly-ground pepper. It must be added that this may be varied to taste, some persons adding a drop or two of Tabasco or a little cayenne to the vinegar whilst others, ‘horresco referens!’ [I shudder as I tell the story], sophisticate this temperance "pick-me-up" by using old rye whiskey, instead of vinegar or sauce; but this is not approved by connoisseurs.
Some recipes include tomato juice, like a Bloody Mary, however if alcohol is included in the mix, the drink is actually considered a close cousin of the prairie oyster, known as an "amber moon." Typically made with vodka, the amber moon is taken as a "hair of the dog" sort of remedy, despite the fact that scientists have found that in no way does consuming more alcohol speed along the affects of a hangover, it simply dulls them.
The prairie oyster became popular in New England around the late 19th century.
The basis for the prairie oyster’s supposed healing properties is fuzzy as well. The most compelling science-backed argument for the prairie oyster would be that, according to the University of Maryland’s guide to supplements, the main ingredient, the egg, contains a fair amount of cysteine-s a substance that breaks down the hangover-causing toxin acetaldehyde in the liver, and speeds up the process of overcoming a hangover.
However, author P. G. Wodehouse perhaps puts it most succinctly in his 1916 short story "Jeeves Takes Charge," in which the titular butler makes an unnamed hangover cure for his new boss, Bertie Wooster: "It is the Worcestershire sauce that gives it its color. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening."
Continuing in Culture
Following its mention in Wodehouse’s Jeeves series, the prairie oyster enjoyed a reputation closely associated with the sophisticated (if a little too enthusiastic) drinker, appearing in the hands of everyone from James Bond to Audrey Hepburn.
In 1939, Christopher Isherwood released a semi-autobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin in which the characters seemingly run on prairie oysters. Over the course of 317 pages, the equally scandalous and glamorous heroine Sally Bowles (later famously played by Liza Minnelli in the film adaptation, Cabaret) has at least five, the first mention appearing on page 28, after she asks one of the characters, Chris—Isherwood’s stand-in—to draw the curtains:
"Would you like a prairie oyster?" She produced glasses, eggs and a bottle of Worcestershire from the boot-cupboard under the dismantled washstand. "I practically live on them." Dexterously she broke the eggs into the glasses, added the sauce and stirred the mixture with the end of a fountain pen. "They’re about all I can afford."
Further cultural mentions stray from any emphasis on frugality, more likely passing from the tray of a butler to a hungover playboy. For example, in the 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Longfellow Deeds—a small-town man played by Gary Cooper—travels to New York after inheriting $20 million from his uncle. Following a long night out on the town, his butler Walter serves him a prairie oyster, explaining, "It makes the head feel smaller."
Fast-forward to the 1960s, and the world’s favorite secret agent, James Bond, speaks of his heavy drinking days—which have been temporarily curbed for the sake of the mission—in Thunderball. Bond, who in this iteration is played by Sean Connery, notes that, "A month ago there wasn’t a week went by but that on at least one day I couldn’t eat anything for breakfast but a couple of aspirins and a prairie oyster."
However, as the popularity of cocktails dwindled in the late 1960s and 1970s, film references to the prairie oyster became more sparse as well; ones that appeared in pop culture in the following decades turned more tongue-in-cheek—like when Gomez Addams, in the 1993 flick Addams Family Values, prepares a "kid-friendly" version of a prairie oyster (add booze, subtract salt and pepper), and puts it in a bottle for the family’s new baby following a raucous party the night before.
The prairie oyster enjoyed a reputation closely associated with the sophisticated drinker, from James Bond to Audrey Hepburn.
Additionally, on screen, the prairie oyster often served as a object referencing a specific time and place—usually the Wild West circa 1860—rather than a contemporary libation. Consider the scene when Dr. Emmett Brown is force-fed the "wake-up juice" in Back to the Future Part III (1990) after passing out from a shot of whiskey in the Wild West; when Warren Beatty downs a prairie oyster as gunslinger John McCabe in the 1971 Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller; or when J.R. Ewing of the TV show Dallas mixes one up in the first season (1978) episode "Bypass."
While in real life the prairie oyster isn’t widely found on brunch or bar menus, one has to wonder, with the recent resurgence of craft cocktails, if a craft prairie oyster (artisanal hot sauce, cage-free egg, homemade Worcestershire sauce, etc.) will soon come back to breakfast tables—or at least to the screen. For example, last year New York bar The Up & Up created a special hangover cure, The Electric Current Fizz, which included a prairie oyster side shot.
So far, the most recent mainstream prairie oyster reference appeared on failed 2006 show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, "a comedy show about a sketch-comedy show where humor is in very short supply." Two of the main characters, Jack Rudolph and Simon Stiles, give a viola prodigy a prairie oyster—augmented with brandy, so technically an amber moon—to help sober her up, only to discover later that the drink is meant to be consumed as a hangover cure. Consequently it had the reverse effect, causing the viola player to become increasingly inebriated (and forced comedy ensues).
While not the ideal spotlight, it’s a start for the classic morning-after remedy that's ready to reclaim its star status of yesteryear.