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