What about wine used in cooking? How dangerous is it for alcoholics?

Wow — this is a week for good questions!  A reader writes that he had a fancy meal, and then discovered that wine had been used in making the sauce.  He was concerned that it could complicate his recovery.  Here’s my answer.  (The “PAWS” comment refers to post-acute withdrawal syndrome, problems and discomfort that arise as our bodies are recovering from the ordeal of addiction.  I’ll be writing more about that in posts to come.)

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This is an issue that needs more attention than it gets. First of all, you can relax regarding the PAWS. The likelihood of that tiny amount of alcohol contributing to any extension of your PAWS is remote, especially since it was consumed with food. Likewise, your sobriety is intact; it was not your intention to use and, indeed, it is impossible to avoid alcohol entirely — although that does not absolve us from remaining vigilant.

It is quite true that cooking alcohol, especially when used in sauces, does not evaporate completely in most cases. However, unless the sauce is reduced at extremely low temperatures, most of it is removed. Since, however, we can’t be sure of that — or that the chef didn’t taste it and decide it needed another touch after the fact — we need to be careful.

I believe that this is mostly a matter of intent and due diligence: we do what we can to avoid knowingly ingesting any alcohol, and deal with each issue if and when it comes to our attention. Having asked about alcohol in the sauce, and having done your due diligence, your attitude alone would indicate that your head’s in the right place and that you’re going to be OK. If someone had handed you a beverage and you’d chugged without even smelling it, that’s a “whole ‘nother smoke,” as they used to say in the Marlboro commercials.

Yes, it’s a good — a very good — idea to avoid alcohol in food if it is possible to do so. But remember this: we relapse in our heads, not in our bellies. The state of mind that leads to using any drug is just as important as the physical act — in this sort of case, even more so. As I’ve written dozens of times before, relapse comes before the drink.

To take another example, let’s say you’re at a wedding, and inadvertently get hold of the spiked punch. Maybe you’re distracted and take a swallow without smelling it and making sure — no question, you took a drink! But did you relapse? Of course not! It was an accident, or at worst simple carelessness — a lesson, not a tragedy.  You jack up your due diligence, step up your meetings for a while, talk about it, stay in touch with people in the program, do a good Tenth Step and get on with life. Stuff happens. If you’d intentionally taken a glass of champagne to toast the happy couple, “just this once” — well, I think you can see the difference there without further from me.

We’re not responsible for our addiction, but we’re sure as heck responsible for our recovery.

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