Q: I’ve heard that the French and Italians drink wine at lunchtime. First of all, is that true? And second, where I’m from that just sounds like a terrible plan. How can they be productive in the afternoons?
A: When I lived in France, doing research on the brain, I ate in the neurological hospital every afternoon. When you eat in the neurological hospital, with all its doctors, here’s what you do:
You start by getting your plastic tray, on which you build an amazing lunch: your little crunchy half-baguette, maybe a little fresh fish in a wine sauce, some herbed veggies, spiced cous cous, a piece of cheese or fruit, two empty glasses, you pay and you’re done! You’re free and clear. You’re on the outside.
Once you’re out there, you have a few options for filling your empty glasses. There’s water, soda, juice, and then you find a cask of red wine. A cask. With a tap. I don’t know how to say this differently: free refills … on the wine … for the doctors … over lunch! This is enough to tip the Baptist brain right off the pier. Note to self, schedule any needed surgeries for the morning. But what was interesting about all this was that I never saw anyone go back for seconds and I was watching. I never saw anyone messy either.
The reason for this comes squarely down to culture. In their culture, wine is considered to be a food. And, if you’re having food for lunch, why not have wine to go with it. After all, it’s a food too. From their perspective, it makes perfect common sense that you would have food with your food at lunch. Duh.
By contrast, from our American cultural perspective, we do not see wine as a food, but as the sum of its pharmacological properties. We think of it as an intoxicant, laced with resveratrol, antioxidants, tannins, and other bioactive chemicals – all very “Acme Jr. Chemistry Set”. In fact, our perspective divorces food from the experience of eating, in a myopic reduction to the lowest common molecular denominator.
That’s why, from our American viewpoint, it makes absolutely zero sense whatsoever to have an intoxicant in the middle of the day. Why in the world would you drug-up on an intoxicant and then expect to go back to work? Why would an employer allow that? The very idea is insane.
What’s cool about this little intercultural thought experiment is that “wine over lunch” is both obviously correct and it is obviously stupid, all at the same time. The only thing that flips the switch from smart to stupid, from right to wrong, is the cultural assumptions that we have been indoctrinated into believing. Think about it. If your culture teaches you to assume that wine is a food, then having a glass with your lunch will make perfect sense to you. Conversely, if your culture teaches you to assume that wine is an intoxicating drug, then the very same act performed in the very same way will suddenly seem absurd. Either way, you think you’re making a rational choice, but are silently influenced by the assumptions given to you by our culture of health. They steer your observations into your conclusions, predefining what seems to you as good, and what seems to you as bad.
Of course, this particular cultural assumption is true in a way. Yes, everything is composed of stuff and that stuff is composed of molecules and those molecules are composed of atoms and those atoms are composed of neutrons protons and electrons. But supposing that wine is just the sum of its chemical properties is like saying a kiss is just two people mashing lips.
It’s time to unplug from our reductionist thinking about food, including wine. To do this, start by becoming a more sensual consumer and treat wine is the food it is, rather than a bunch of inert molecules swimming in a glass. Focus on the experience: the aroma, the way its flavors marry with the food on your palate. When you do this, you enjoy it more, taste it more and, yes, are more likely to consume it in control.
In our newest weekly series Ask Will, our resident nutrition expert, Dr. Will Clower, Founder & CEO of Mediterranean Wellness, will be answering your questions on food, diet, and nutrition each Wednesday! He’ll tackle the common and the not-so-common concerns we all have with food and help us work towards creating the best nutrition plan for us! Have a question for Dr. Clower? Ask Will in the comments below and stay tuned each Wednesday to see your question get answered!
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