Long Reads

I've Decided to Give Up Alcohol, at Least for a While

June 10, 2016

“That’s what planted the seed for my interest in food writing, really,” I say in an interview on Heritage Radio. "Studying anthropology in college, I learned there was this subset of academics who were looking at other cultures through their foodways—through what they eat, through what they don’t eat—and I found that fascinating.” I go on to reference Sydney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power and Anne Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner as two “seminal works that inspired me to devote my career to studying food and the people who make it.”

Photo by James Ransom

It sounds pretty good, and it’s true. It’s the answer to the how did you get here question that I’ve been privileged to have been asked on a few different radio shows. I am a food writer. That’s my professional identity. And those few lines are my calling card.

I am also a drinker. That’s my personal identity. And wine is my calling card. Wine and bourbon and ice-cold gin martinis.

“There are rules,” I say when asked about how I entertain at home. “No more than six people, so relatively small, and everyone knows me and one other person, but no one else—I love friend matchmaking. By the time we’re on the umpteenth bottle of wine, though, all rules go out the window: other friends might come by, everyone’s sitting on the floor, conversation turns a bit raunchy. I’d have it no other way.”

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That’s me. I embrace, I feed, I laugh—loudly—I opine, I listen, I cuss, I flirt—with everyone—I provoke, and I drink. I may drink to the point of spilling a little, but it’s almost chic; the wine sloshes out of Waterford crystal and onto a black cowhide rug that won’t remember the misstep to me in the morning. By that sloshing point, any cleanly knotted notions of social propriety—and there aren’t many—have been untied, and the ropes are flopping around for everyone to see. That’s me. And that’s part of the reason, I imagine, my guests accepted the invite. Dinner at Julia’s house is a wonderfully sloppy time. It’s a relief to them, I think.

Despite the very funny jokes about WASPs and their wine, the streets, buildings, counties, and islands in this country that bear the names of my old American family do not make the alcoholism in it feel jocular. When your mother burns down a wall of the kitchen, even if she is wearing a collar starched at attention, it is not chic. The story of the sixteen year-old girl’s dealings with the firemen who arrived on the scene to find that they couldn’t communicate clearly with the adult in said kitchen is ridiculous, sure, but it’s not particularly funny.

I embrace, I feed, I laugh—loudly—I opine, I listen, I cuss, I flirt—with everyone—I provoke, and I drink.

My drinking didn’t look quite like that. It looked carefree and fun, like I said. It looked a little out of control, and that’s why we love Julia. What my guests didn’t see was that after I washed the dishes and my face, I tended to walk out of my apartment and through a doorway across the street marked Philip's Liquor Store. I would head past the bullet-proof cashier’s stand to the wine section, grab whatever bottle didn’t have a kangaroo or a frog on the label, purchase it from the woman whose voice I couldn’t hear through all those layers of thick glass and anodized metal, and drink it. Sometimes some inappropriate someone might be lying next to me when I woke up.

The Somali refugees I’ve been interviewing for a story are Muslim, so they don’t eat pork. Goat, rice, green chutney, and bananas—that’s their identity, and so is eschewing pork. I have decided to eschew alcohol, at least for a while. What does that do to my identity?

Have you seen a Pomeranian or a Golden Retriever just after a summer shearing? Without that thick coat of hair, you can see their angular bone structure, their lean musculature, their shocking thinness. They look dethroned. That’s a bit how I feel without wine or bourbon or ice-cold gin martinis. I miss how good Châteauneuf-du-Pape tastes, and how sexy two glasses of it make me feel. Maybe I can taste it again sometime.

“Oh, no,” said my best friend. “You’re so much cooler this way.”

We’ll see.

Julia Bainbridge is our writer in Residence. Find more of her stories here.

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Julia Bainbridge is an editor who has worked at Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Yahoo Food, and Atlanta Magazine and a James Beard Award-nominated writer whose stories have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others. Her book, Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You're Not Drinking for Whatever Reason, was named one of the best cookbooks of 2020 by the Los Angeles Times and Wired and Esquire magazines. Julia is the recipient of the Research Society on Alcoholism's 2021 Media Award and she is one of Food & Wine magazine's 25 first-annual "Game Changers" for being "a pivotal voice in normalizing not drinking alcohol."


John C. June 22, 2016
Glad you shared this. One bit of advice from a little further down the road is to develop a short explanation of why you don't drink. It can be as short as "I just don't." The reality is that it can be hard dealing with other people's reactions. The most common seems to be: "I really should cut back, it's probable healthier for me." However, I've encountered puzzlement, defensiveness, even anger..."Do you think you're better than everyone?!?" Mostly, it just seems hard for people to take at face value. It can be awkward for some, especially on first dates where you have to deal with it as soon as the waiter shows up. A friend uses this: "I don't drink, but my friends do and I'm just as much fun as they are!"
Good luck.
ChefJune June 17, 2016
Bravo, Julia! What a beautifully written, thoughtful and personal piece. I wish you good health and success always. L'Chaim!
french_trash June 12, 2016
Wow, this was such a wonderful, candid confession of how easy it is to become attached to things that help us cope in good and bad situations. I feel this post speaks to those of us (including me!) who are functioning at such a high level it is easy to lose track of when something is helping or hurting you. Bravo to you for taking a moment to appreciate yourself- with and without the alcohol. Thank you so much for sharing!
Cheryl June 11, 2016
amazing insight...much applause to your bravery...I have entertained with and without alcohol...I find a celebration with friends enjoying tea, wine, or even martinis is all about the mingle...I hope your journey is soulful and is colored with understanding of friends both old and new!!!
BocaCindi June 11, 2016
I'm so impressed with you that you shared something so personal with us. Love Mardee's comment: Enjoy your new freedom. So many supportive comments here.
Melissa M. June 11, 2016
I feel like I could have written this. It's refreshing to know I'm not the only person who struggles with entertaining and controlling themselves.
Trevor June 11, 2016
You should start using cannabis. You can relax and get giggley but still be coherent when the firemen arrive. It will also help with any alcohol cravings you might have. Plus it goes even better with food than booze does.
amysarah June 11, 2016
I've been close to several people with either full blown drinking problems, or the more insidious borderline variety, easily obscured by the family culture and social charm you so aptly describe - and this was spot on. I especially like that your final line isn't a big proclamation, but a humble: 'We'll see.'
Mardee A. June 11, 2016
What a beautiful truthful article! Deep down only we know when our drinking is stealing a piece of us that we want back. To really live is to live without secrets! Enjoy your new freedom!
osanago June 11, 2016
Yup, very similar experience, unfortunately I don't have your willpower and just love alcohol so much, I don't think it is part of my identity but it feels as necessary as food to me. I recently had 2 weeks off and did not feel one iota better in fact I think not drinking gave me high blood pressure :) but good luck with it, will be interested to hear how you get on.
Andrea T. June 11, 2016
Good for you. Stick with it and you will find that honey will eventualy taste sweeter, even if you have to choke sown some bitter dark chocolate once in a while....
Andrea T. June 11, 2016
can't edit, down, not sown. oops
Larry Z. June 10, 2016
I'm with you, I gave up alcohol June 17, 1981. If I hadn't I'd be dead.
katallred June 10, 2016
So good, so beautiful, so true, so relatable - I could cry.
Suzanne June 10, 2016
You are going to be just fine. Your very self will be glad to have the freedom. I took a break from alcohol 8 years ago. I am still having fun, laughing, enjoying great food...and remembering every delightful (or not) moment. My identity seems to be surviving quite well without wine. Your's will, too.
Solo500 June 10, 2016
YOU are not the things you consume, you're not even the things you create (though that's closer, right?). YOU are YOU. Have fun summer shearing!
Rebecca S. June 10, 2016
Bravo to you! It is a hard decision. However, you never know what identity you might find along the way. Perhaps your life has been waiting for this change in course.