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Alcohol has a unique place at the dinner table. For many, it’s an inseparable part of their enjoyment of a meal, but it’s also the only ingredient that could lead to a fatal accident, land you on MADD’s shit list, sabotage your career, and ruin dinner.
I have my own love-hate relationship with firewater. I love that first taste of a well-made cocktail before a meal, that almost instantaneous sensation of pleasure and relaxation it can cause. I also love how the characteristics of a fine wine can interlock with the flavors of a fine dish, perhaps the pleasant clash of a lychee-scented Gewürztraminer against a fiery lamb vindaloo. What I hate, though, is how alcohol can affect my concentration, my memory, and therefore my lasting enjoyment of a meal. Alcohol can feel like a visit from an old college drinking buddy who won’t leave.
Which got me to thinking: Putting aside all the flavors that a skilled brewmaster, winemaker, and mixologist can bring to a fermented beverage, what exactly does ethyl alcohol contribute to a meal? Sure, for centuries folks have claimed it “stimulates” appetite and “opens” your palate; no less a gastronome than Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in his 1825 The Physiology of Taste that, “Alcohol is the king of potables, and carries to the nth degree the excitation of our palates.”
But does it really? And is there a point of diminishing returns with ethanol, that small molecule that makes up the liquid we know as alcohol? Is there a moment when your brain loses interest in the food on your plate and moves into an id-driven mental space that your superego had previously hogtied like some frothing-at-the-mouth beast?
“I believe an aperitif…opens up your palate and opens up your mind a little bit to enjoy things more,” says Todd Thrasher, the general manager, partner, sommelier, and “drinkmaker” at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria. He then clarifies his thought: “I don’t know if it opens up the palate, but I think it opens you up as a person. That’s what alcohol has been used for: to let inhibitions go. I think in dining, too, if you have a glass of Champagne or a finely crafted cocktail, it will open your food inhibitions up to try more things and try different things.”
Like Thrasher, Chris Cunningham, bar manager and mixologist at Dino in Cleveland Park, samples a lot of wines as part of his job. He knows from personal experience that knocking back one glass after another—particularly with no food, particularly when you swallow each gulp of wine—can obscure taste and judgment. “When we go to [wine] tastings, you start to lose it after a point. There’s no doubt. You can’t discern anything. The mouth just becomes dull after a while,” he says. Any alcohol has the same effect when you reach a certain point. “From that point on,” Cunningham says, “your ability to further discern the flavors are limited and dulled.”
Robert Weland, chef at Poste Moderne Brasserie, put it more bluntly. “If you sit down and you’re buzzed at a table, you might as well just go to Mickey D’s at the end of the evening. I don’t think you’re going to taste much,” he says. Overdrinking “is not desirable in a meal because…you do forget certain aspects of it, and the last course is supposed to be the highlight in our business. If your wits are not about you, you’re certainly not going to enjoy it.”
Researchers have been studying alcohol for years; there are reams of data on what leads to alcoholism (did you know that a heightened response to sweetness or a high threshold for bitterness can be an indicator?), how alcohol affects organs, and what alcohol’s role is in brain chemistry. No studies, however, are frivolous enough to merely deal with alcohol’s role in gustatory pleasure, though some dance around the fringes of the subject, delving into alcohol’s amnesiac effects, for example.
Dr. Alexey Kampov-Polevoy, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, has been studying alcohol since 1979, including his work at the school’s Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies. Despite his work with alcoholics, he’s no fussy teetotaler; he’s a Moscow native who says he drinks on an “as-needed basis.”
Although at least one other study contradicts him, Kampov-Polevoy firmly believes that ethyl alcohol, in small doses like an aperitif, stimulates appetite. First, he says, alcohol increases the secretion of pepsin and acids in your stomach, and “usually this effect creates a subjective feeling of hunger.” Second, he says, about 30 percent of healthy people perceive alcohol as sweet on the tongue, “and these perceptions create the release of dopamine in the brain.” That positive stimulation of the brain tends to make people hungry. It’s like when “you give a rat a small dose of morphine,” the professor says. “It will eat more.”
These two effects can be obtained, Kampov-Polevoy says, without a drop of alcohol entering your bloodstream. However, once ethanol enters the bloodstream, mostly through the small intestine, its effects get more complicated, depending on how much you drink, what kind of drink you consume, and how well you metabolize alcohol, which itself depends on a whole host of factors. The one bloodstream benefit we all seem to enjoy is the same one known to virtually every drunk college kid who’s stood in line for a jumbo slice at 2 a.m.: It lowers inhibitions, including those that try to prevent you from stuffing your face.
This lack of control naturally has its drawbacks. In talking to his patients with alcohol problems, Kampov-Polevoy says they experience “episodes of binge-eating when they eat, but they don’t care what they eat, and they don’t remember it very clear.” A lack of inhibition can negatively impact your meal in others ways, too. It can take your mind a million miles away from the dining-room table, as your secret desires or hidden frustrations start to wail for attention.
“You need to keep in mind that the goals are changing” as you’re drinking, Kampov-Polevoy continues. “You’re going to [a] restaurant to have a nice evening to enjoy your meal, to enjoy your company. Instead of eating, you may get drunk. You start a fight.…The nice food is on the bottom of your list, because all other things are getting up on your agenda.”
Then again, as Thrasher notes, a mind-altering experience is the main course for some diners. “I think enjoyment [of a meal] is maybe subjective,” Thrasher says. “A lot of people just come in there to have a blast and not worry so much about the food.” Translation: People—and who among us hasn’t felt this way?—sometimes just want to flush their brains with alcohol, no matter whose shit list they end up on.
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