I set out to examine why many wine drinkers seem to need their wine to be a health beverage. Part of it is wrapped up in the whole issue of what constitutes health, and why it has become a necessary counterpoint to contradictory and shaming messages about food. This is partly responsible for the rise of self-care as a major component of health, and for many people, that’s where wine comes in. (Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash.)
Since the holidays are nearly here, I expect to see a round of articles discussing how the wine we’ll be drinking this time of year is either (a) the perfect way to get jacked despite the inevitable holiday overeating, or (b) a step toward missing future holidays with our grandchildren, along with some shade thrown at people who touted option (a).
Obviously, I’d like to know what the real deal is with wine and health, as I’d like to with all foods. I personally don’t need wine to be a health tonic. But I wanted to explore why so many people want or need to think that drinking wine is good for them. (Or eating dark chocolate, for that matter). And, conversely, why there’s such gleeful vitriol from some when we learn that it might not be.
I got way deeper into the topic than I expected to, and I don’t want to drag everyone into the weeds. After a couple of weeks of reading and discussion I was left with two conclusions:
1) Anything we eat or drink can be dismissed as self-indulgent, whether it’s for pleasure or what we think of as pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. Wine is an easy target, especially because of its historically elitist associations. Tangible health benefits blunt the criticism. If they turn out not to be true, then those who claimed health benefits are bound to be on the receiving end of “see, you’re no better than the rest of us” – ism.
2) It’s not just food and wine that have to be good for us. Everything in our lives has to be “healthy” or it will seem to have less value, and we’re not supposed to care about it. Since there’s no definition of “healthy” living, we’ve allowed all sorts of aesthetic and decorous things to creep into our notions of health. And then, of course, we want something to back us up in our beliefs.
These seem pretty emphatic, which isn’t what I intended. They’re based on philosophical research, which by its nature tries hard to make its points. So while it might read like we’re helplessly buffeted by forces beyond our control, the point is that there are social norms that work on us whether we’re aware or not. And they influence our attitudes in ways we don’t necessarily understand.
I didn’t expect to find any studies examining people’s attitudes toward drinking wine in a sociological or ethical context, and I couldn’t. But those studies definitely exist for food. I was particularly struck by work done by Rebecca Kukla, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, and senior research scholar at the Kennedy School of Ethics.
Kukla wrote “Shame, Seduction, and Character in Food Messaging” as a chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Food Ethics, and it’s an eye-opening look at what she calls “the rhetorical and ethical structure of our public communications and representations concerning food, eating, health, and obesity.” Her take on food messaging is blunt. “Any eating practices in which we may engage are at risk of being shamed. There is no normatively safe way to eat in our culture – no set of eating practices that makes one more or less immune from shaming and criticism… Our eating practices are routinely portrayed as having characterological significance, so there is no right kind of person to be in our culture, when it comes to food.” Further, she says that “messages that create a moralized sense of personal accountability for food choices, linking eating practices with character, also cause moral distortion…[and] can do direct moral harm by demeaning their recipients.”
Since she’s here in DC, I wanted to meet with her, and she agreed. I didn’t know when I first contacted her that she’s also a certified sommelier. She was happy to discuss what she also sees as an increasing need to make wine into a health beverage.
Kukla and I talked about two points in her article that I thought particularly applied to wine. The first is that wine, like some foods, is considered seductive, pleasurable, and rewarding – but at the same time those foods are thought of as “bad” because they’re tempting and an indulgence. The second is that wine is part of what we think of as celebratory foods, which Kukla claims, “are almost exclusively among those also coded as unhealthy and shameful.” While we think of wine, correctly, as part of important cultural traditions, it’s considered celebratory in part because it’s also indulgent and decadent.
She agreed that modern-day wine writing, like food writing, plays up the sensual aspects in a way that can push wine into what people think of as the “bad” category. And the reasoning that we “reward” ourselves with wine (like we do with other celebratory foods) underscores that it’s something we’re not otherwise “supposed” to have. But if wine has a health benefit, that’s a built-in excuse to drink it without seeming self-indulgent.
Wine has its own elitist baggage, though. Its historical association with wealth certainly doesn’t help. And wine evokes what Kukla called “the charm of other places.” Not that it has to be a French château necessarily, but even many California winery tasting rooms sport the hushed tones generally reserved for the world’s great cathedrals. I appreciate that charm because it has great associations for me. But it can certainly seem overblown.
Kukla then took our discussion into work by Anna Kirkland at the University of Michigan. Kukla’s chapter cited one of Kirkland’s articles, titled “The Environmental Account of Obesity: A Case for Feminist Skepticism.” Kirkland’s idea of something called “healthism” – that health has become our new morality – also applies to how we look at wine.
I’m looking forward to contacting Kirkland to discuss her work more fully in a wine context. But reading her feminist skepticism article and my discussion with Kukla on Kirkland’s ideas gave me plenty to ponder.
At first glance, the idea that we need everything to be healthy in our lives in order to be worthy of consideration seems way out there. But I can see some truth in it. I think part of it may be a reaction to the definitively unhealthy things in our lives we can’t control, like pollution and global warming. Kirkland argues that because healthy means different things to different people, we have let the concept slide. It has absorbed aesthetics, character, and class values in a kind of absurd mix. Our images of what constitute “healthy” living now tilt toward the decorous, proper, and clean, like something out of a magazine. And it extends beyond what we eat to things like spirituality.
Kukla and I discussed healthism as it applies to wine, and we agreed that the marketing associated with “natural” wine fits the bill. While there isn’t any evidence that these wines are better for you than wines produced by today’s conventional methods, they have acquired a patina of self-care. Our expanded sense of health includes concepts like self-care, so that makes natural wines “healthy,” especially if you can pit them against other wines.
But even conventional wines are treated as self-care, although most people don’t seem to extend that distinction to beer and spirits. Since we’ve conflated self-care with health, we then want what Kukla calls “Capital S science” to back it up. When we find it, it reinforces the good we think we’re doing ourselves.
Definitely a lot to think about here. Rebecca Kukla and I agree that people should drink wine because they want to, without shame or the need to make it a health benefit. It sounds like it should automatically be that way, but maybe we all need to embrace our habits to give ourselves permission to enjoy the foods we like without making it seem like we’re judging other people for theirs. Easier said than done, I know, since we’re all buffeted by messages telling us otherwise. But hey, it’s the holidays, so we can always hope, right?
A photo of my attempt at Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar, from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. You don’t peel the squash before roasting (it comes out great that way), and you can do the squash and onions a couple of days ahead. So it makes a tasty and easy Thanksgiving side dish. Thanks to Mr. Tamimi for permission to reprint the recipe.
My experience with Thanksgiving food is that most people don’t want to experiment, at least not with the basics. Not because they’ll get shamed for it, but because part of the comfort of the Thanksgiving holiday is the traditional meal.
Dessert can be an exception, especially if someone else brings it. But new side dishes can also get a pass as long as they don’t crowd out the stuffing, mashed potatoes, or brussels sprouts. The trouble is, oven space is at a premium on Thanksgiving Day, so it’s great to have a side dish you can make ahead, refrigerate, and then let sit at room temperature before serving.
I was looking through some of my cookbooks recently and came across a recipe containing roasted butternut squash in the book Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. It has a lot of great stuff in it, but the thing about this recipe is that you roast the butternut squash without peeling it. Cutting it into small pieces first and then roasting skin-side down on the baking sheet softens the skin and makes it a bit chewy, a nice contrast to the softer flesh of the squash. But maybe the best thing is that it was wonderful as leftovers, too – which makes it perfect as a make-ahead Thanksgiving side dish.
I asked Sami Tamimi for permission to reprint the recipe here for you, and he graciously agreed. I’ve included my notes on doing the roasting ahead.
I hope your Thanksgiving dinner is accompanied by a bunch of open bottles of wine, allowing you to try different foods and wines together. So don’t sweat it. But if you’re looking for something in particular – especially if you’re bringing this side dish to a dinner – try Bulichella Rubino ($21). It’s a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, made in the Maremma in Tuscany. Not as big-bodied as so-called Supertuscans that have the same blend of grapes (and only pair with Tuscan steak), it’s delicious with a wide range of foods. Shizuko Miyakawa, the Japanese-Italian winery manager at Bulichella, spent a year in the U.S. as an exchange student, and would be thrilled if you served her family’s wine with your Thanksgiving dinner.
Best wishes for the holiday season, and enjoy all of the wine and food!
Roasted Butternut Squash & Red Onion with Tahini & Za’atar
Serves 4 as a main, or 8 as a large side dish
From Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, reprinted with Mr. Tamimi’s permission
1 butternut squash (about 2-1/4 pounds), skin scrubbed and rinsed, cut into ¾ by 2-1/2 inch wedges
2 large red onions, each cut into 8 wedges (about 1-1/4 inch)
3-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
3-1/2 tablespoons tahini paste
1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
1 small clove of garlic, crushed to a paste or grated
3-1/2 tablespoons pine nuts (30 grams, or 1 ounce)
1 tablespoon za’atar
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Flaky sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees F.
Combine the squash pieces with the onion wedges in a large bowl, add 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspon of salt, and some black pepper and toss well. Spread on a baking sheet with the skin facing down and roast in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Keep an eye on the onions as they might cook faster than the squash and need to be removed earlier. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
At this point, you can refrigerate the squash and onions for up to 2 days. A couple of hours before serving, take them out of the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature.
To make the sauce, place the tahini in a small bowl along with the lemon juice, water, garlic, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Whisk until the sauce is the consistency of honey, adding more water or tahini if necessary.
Place the remaining half-tablespoon (1-1/2 teaspoons) of the oil into a small frying pan and place over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts along with ½ teaspoon salt and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often, until the nuts are golden brown. Remove from the heat and transfer the nuts and oil to a small bowl to stop the cooking.
To serve, spread the vegetables out on a large serving platter and drizzle over the tahini. Sprinkle the pine nuts and their oil on top, followed by the za’atar and parsley.
Variation: You could also make a different version using spinach, bleu cheese, and walnuts. Roast the squash and onions and let cool. Put 3-4 ounces of washed baby spinach on the platter, top with the roasted vegeetables, ½ cup walnut pieces, and about 1/3 cup crumbled bleu cheese. Drizzle on about 5 tablespoons of a simple lemon vinaigrette and serve.