It is fitting that this morning, after paying bills and moaning about another increase in our health insurance premium, I came across a Russian proverb in a nutrition magazine: "Drink a glass of wine after your soup and you steal a ruble from the doctor."
The first hard data supporting the benefits of a glass of wine a day came in 1974 when researchers at Kaiser Permanente in California found that teetotalers suffer more heart attacks than drinkers. Critics questioned the validity of the data because ex-drinkers and non-drinkers were put in the same category. So in 1977 another study excluded former drinkers.
Rather than invalidating the California conclusion, the Honolulu Heart Program Study showed that, indeed, lifetime abstainers had more than twice as many cases of cardiovascular diseases as people who drank moderately. Likewise, two Harvard studies showed moderate drinkers having less heart disease than either abstainers or heavy drinkers.
How? A striking correlation exists between moderate drinking and higher HDL cholesterol ("good" cholesterol) levels. Drinking with meals, particularly, seems to prevent fatty platelets from forming in the blood. Ethanol is the key, whether in the form of beer, wine, or spirits.
When the news program 60 Minutes presented the "French Paradox" to American viewers in 1991, crediting wine drinking as the reason French people have half the heart disease Americans do despite eating more butter and cheese, U.S. wine sales increased by 44 percent. It seems we were waiting for nutritional permission to do what many of us do anyway-lift our glasses of fruit-from-the-vine to the health and cheer of everyday life. (Many of us also were delighted to continue eating butter with a clear conscience.)
On the other hand, nutritionists warn that the benefit to the heart should not overshadow other medical questions. Suspicions remain that the same moderate drinking may lead to breast cancer in young women, and possibly contribute to colon cancer in men. French people have higher rates of liver disease. One also can't deny that there are other ways besides drinking alcohol to improve the health of your heart: Eating more fruits and vegetables, exercising, snacking less on fats and sugars.
Drinkers must never forget the fine line that exists between alcohol use and abuse. Out of control drinking can cause birth defects, stroke, family disruption, lost productivity, loss of life-some 100,000 deaths a year in this country, including 20,000 deaths from traffic accidents, are attributable to alcohol abuse. For those who are not able to limit their alcohol consumption to moderate amounts, no coronary benefit could offset the risks to self, family, and society.
Many other reasons-religious or philosophical beliefs, heredity, pregnancy, medication, saving money, having teen-agers in the house-also lead people to abstain from drinking. This should be respected. People of faith have a special mandate to avoid offending those for whom certain foods or drinks are wrong (1 Corinthians 9:12). Love of neighbor is the bottom line.
BUT IN MANY SITUATIONS drink is a joy and a privilege. Beer with a homemade sausage. Burgundy in a stew. Sherry in a nutmeg cake. Brandy on peaches or in a chocolate mousse. "I cook with wine. Sometimes I even put some in the food" appears on a friend's kitchen wall. (If you cook with alcohol for guests, it is important to let them know beforehand-many people who abstain don't want to ingest alcohol in any form, even if cooking might have evaporated it.)
Our kitchens, our tables, our gatherings are things sacred. A glass of wine, with its Communion overtones, reminds us that this is so. The Creator gives us many gifts; hops, grapes, sugar, and yeast are especially delightful ones. "The half bottle or bottle split between husband and wife over cold meat loaf and brawling children are not solemn alcoholic dosages. They are cheerful minor lubrications of the frequently sandy gears of life," says Robert Farrar Capon in The Supper of the Lamb.
When all is said and done, pouring wine at the table and in the kitchen fits my underlying reason for cooking: to get people to look forward to meals, to stay at supper longer, to talk and laugh much together. Besides, "moderation" is a beautiful word. If we were to practice moderation in what we consume (in all applications of the word), we would do ourselves, our children, our Earth, a great favor.
Happy holidays and a blessed new year!
CAREY BURKETT, former assistant to the editor at Sojourners , is now an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.