Coq au Cough Syrup

Steven Shapin

The ‘white bear problem’ in experimental psychology has to do with the unintended consequences of trying to suppress certain thoughts. I tell you not to think of white bears, and – see – you’ve just imaged up a white bear. It’s a bit like when the government tells you not to panic.

On 15 September, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against a recipe for NyQuil Chicken. NyQuil is an over-the-counter drowsy-making liquid cold medicine, like Benylin in Britain. The FDA said that cooking chicken in NyQuil can dangerously concentrate the active ingredients – acetaminophen, dextromethorphan, doxylamine – and, even if you don’t eat the chicken, inhaling the vapours can pose ‘significant risks’.

Comedy videos showing the preparation of the NyQuil recipe, sometimes known as ‘sleepy chicken’, have been around on social media for years: one YouTube video recommended that you use ‘four-thirds of a bottle’ for two chicken breasts. In January, late-night talk shows covered the thing and Forbes ran a piece about it.

What’s not clear is whether anyone had actually been eating sleepy chicken, but these days the boundaries between the real and the ridiculous are hard to police. (After Trump suggested injecting disinfectant to kill coronavirus, bleach-drinking became a thing, though Trump later claimed he was being sarcastic.) The FDA felt it had to act, and now advice not to cook your chicken in NyQuil has gone viral: trending on Twitter, cautionary as well as spoof videos on TikTok. Procter and Gamble, who manufacture NyQuil, made it clear that ‘we do not endorse inappropriate use of our product’ – though, as it’s said, other cough syrups are available.

Nevertheless, the possibility of thinking about white bears is out there, and warnings that NyQuil Chicken is bad for you also carry the message that such a dish exists. The FDA says it hasn’t yet had reports of people getting sick from NyQuil Chicken, but now that we all know about coq au cough syrup, cases may eventually turn up. Authorities should be vigilant. Where are the warnings against Fairy Liquid Risotto or Liver and Lysol?


  • 27 September 2022 at 2:09pm
    Delaide says:
    I wonder if the FDA actually cooked chicken in NyQuil to confirm the increase in the concentration of acetaminophen etc? The mind boggles.

    • 28 September 2022 at 8:09am
      nlowhim says: @ Delaide
      I would hope that they’ve done Jay that

  • 29 September 2022 at 10:16pm
    HankUS says:
    Rather like the old story of the child told to under now circumstances put peas up his nose.