In recovery circles, people talk about grieving your relationship with alcohol (and any other drugs of choice). As an avid cookbook collector, occasional food blogger, Francophile, and an ardent fan of all things Barefoot Contessa/Ina Garten, I called my sober friend Suzanne in a panic a few months into my first stint at sobriety professing a huge loss.
I would never be able to make Garten’s very French, highly romantic, coq au vin, which calls for a full half bottle of “good dry red wine,” in addition to a considerable dose of brandy. Notwithstanding the different perspectives on sober people cooking with alcohol, half a bottle of wine plus brandy seemed like dangerous territory to me. When it came to my journey as a home cook, now newly sober, I had a serious case of Fear of Missing Out.
Today, with a few more “24 hours” under my belt, as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous (of which I am an active member), I am learning to rekindle my love of cooking without the increasingly compulsive need to sip copious amounts of white wine as I’m stirring the risotto or seasoning the stir fry or… defrosting the frozen pizza.
I’ve learned that I’m not alone when it comes to drinking tainting my relationship with cooking. Suzanne, a public relations consultant and mother of two, recalls many days guzzling wine as she prepared meals for her family. “It didn’t matter if I was whipping up a box of mac and cheese or trying out a new gourmet recipe. As soon as I opened the wine and had it in my hand, it just made it all feel fabulous,” she says.
With almost a year and a half sober now, Suzanne is still a passionate home cook, but she has found a way to reconnect with what she truly loves about cooking, free from addictive behaviors. Here are some of hers and others’ suggestions for rediscovering the joy of cooking, sober.
1. In Very Early Recovery, Consider Avoiding Cooking Entirely:
“If cooking with alcohol was a huge part of your routine and now you’ve cut alcohol because it’s a problem, be gentle with yourself,” Suzanne says. “If you don’t feel like cooking because you can’t drink, you don’t have to.”
Tina Hoester, LCSW, CRADC, CCDP-D, program manager at Northbound Treatment Services in Saint Louis, seconds this advice. She recommends that individuals in early recovery do their best to simply avoid major triggers. For her, this meant avoiding listening to certain music for a matter of several years. She compares the visceral, emotional pull of music to that of smells in cooking. “Music and smells are things that can just catapult you back in time,” she cautions.
2. Be Aware that Cooking Is a Triggering Activity:
Simply acknowledging that cooking may be triggering can have a powerful effect, Hoester says. She encourages individuals to normalize the idea that they may have thoughts about alcohol when they cook and to take hold of those thoughts when they do occur, recognizing that they don’t automatically have to lead to relapse.
She recommends using this strategy more generally around the early evening hours. “The ‘after work, before dinner’ time is a real trigger for a lot of people because it signals the transition from workday to ‘my time,’” she says.
3. Reframe Cooking as an Act of Service, Self-Expression, or Self-Care:
Hoester encourages people who are recovering from alcohol use disorder to use sober cooking as an opportunity to reexamine what their love of food and meal preparation is all about. “Cooking is really an act of love and nurturing,” she says.
For Suzanne, cooking is a way to take care of her family but it’s also a way to be creative. “I love trying new recipes and reading recipes. I even once fantasized about opening a restaurant,” she says.
Heather, a therapist and mother of three, has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for over ten years. She recently went through a divorce and has used cooking via a pre-packaged meal service as a form of self-care. Cooking has helped her structure her eating as she grows accustomed to living alone, she says. Reimagining what cooking means to you is called “cognitive reframing,” a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, Hoester says.
4. Use Practical Tools to Reduce Triggers Associated with Cooking:
I have gradually started cooking more by meal prepping during the day on the weekends, and generally avoiding cooking in those early evening witching hours. If I have to cook in the evening, I often ask my partner to join me and, thankfully, he is often willing.
If these options aren’t available to you, Hoester suggests calling a friend before and after cooking to hold yourself accountable. It can also help to listen to podcasts or watch a TV show as you cook, Suzanne says. “For a while, I felt like I needed a crutch, something to fill that pleasure void that wine gave me,” she explains. “If I could tune into a guilty pleasure reality show it seemed to distract me enough and then I wasn’t focused on ‘missing out.’”
5. Avoid Using Alcohol as an Ingredient Until You’ve Achieved Serious Long-Term Sobriety:
People have to find what works for them but Hoester’s professional advice is to refrain from putting alcohol in your food until you have really long-term sobriety — as in, decades.
Aside from the fact that you can’t always cook the alcohol out of your food, sometimes opening a bottle and smelling wine or brandy or “framboise liqueur,” in the Ina Garten world, is enough to set you up for a relapse.
Suzanne and Heather can both attest to this. Once, after having about four months sober and not experiencing intense alcohol cravings, Heather relapsed after she made a flank steak that she had marinated in red wine. Similarly, Suzanne, at 28 days sober, made a recipe that called for half a cup of red wine. “I made this big deal of going to the store with my husband and son, that I was just going to get a mini bottle for this recipe,” she remembers. She ended up drinking the other half cup.
Today, Suzanne makes frequent use of Google when she needs an alcohol-free substitute. In a world full of gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan, vegetarian, Keto-dieting eaters, it’s pretty easy to do so, she says.
With some expert Googling, perhaps there’s a way I can make that coq au vin, after all.. and Ina Garten’s rum raisin rice pudding, minus the rum, while I’m at it.
Seriously, though, it’s worth learning to cook without the alcohol, along with learning to live life sober, too.
As for Ina? As a rule, she doesn’t drink when she cooks, according to Town and Country magazine. In fact, she opts for a Taylor Swift soundtrack instead. “I’m a terrible drunk,” she reportedly told a group of women at the Central Park Conservancy’s Women’s Committee luncheon.
Oh, Ina, if only you knew…