Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.
Bettina Elias Siegel is a former lawyer and freelance writer who blogs daily about kids and food at The Lunch Tray. Her essays and feature writing have appeared in numerous publications including SELF, Parents, Glamour (Mexico), The Guardian (UK), the Huffington Post, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Houston Chronicle. She lives in Houston with her husband and two children.
Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?
Bettina Elias Siegel: I was such a square in high school; at most, I had a sip or two of beer at parties. And growing up, my parents always let us have a taste of their wine or beer if we asked. But my first “real” drink was at one of the first parties I attended in college. It was served to me by an upper classman with an evil gleam in his eye and that look really should have warned me to proceed with caution. He handed me a plastic cup of punch made with Everclear (a very potent grain alcohol) and I distinctly remember that within a few minutes I literally could not feel my lips, as though I’d just had a tooth filled at the dentist. Scary.
How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?
These days I enjoy alcohol on occasion but not to excess. Now that I’m in my forties, I find that alcohol tends to make me more sleepy than anything else so I have a built-in incentive not to drink too much.
If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled? Do you drink in front of them? With them?
With our two school-aged kids, we treat alcohol the same way I was raised to view it: as a pleasant, enhancing aspect of adult life to be enjoyed in moderation. We don’t feel alcohol should be taboo, so on Friday nights both kids get a sip of Shabbat wine, and if they ask to taste our wine or beer at dinner (on the relatively rare occasions when we drink during the week) we certainly let them. But every now and then my husband and I like to make a true cocktail, doing it up by using the right glass and all the appropriate garnishes. And of course the end result is attractive to our kids, who sometimes ask if they, too, can have “a special drink.” That concerns me a little, but at the same time I reassure myself that we’re not modeling any kind of destructive behavior. That is, they’ve never seen us drink too much or abuse alcohol in any way.
Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?
When I was in my mid-thirties, after having worked for almost a decade as a lawyer in New York City, I gave up my career, moved to a new city with my husband and was staying home with a newborn and a small toddler. Being with such young kids all day long can be a pretty stultifying experience, and it was all the more so for me because I didn’t yet have much of a support network. At some point I noticed how avidly I looked forward to unwinding with a glass of wine with my husband at dinner after the kids were put to bed. I mean, I really looked forward to that glass of wine – it started to cross my mind around three in the afternoon. I was worried about myself until a friend with older kids said she’d felt the exact same way when her children were very young. She made me see that what I was really craving was that precise moment when the wine was poured, a moment which signified I was finally “off the clock,” able to engage in adult conversation (often for the first time all day) and able to focus on myself for a little while instead of caring for the needs of others. Totally apart from the relaxing effects of alcohol, so much emotional release was wrapped up in that one glass of wine that it’s no wonder it had such a powerful hold over me back then. (And it’s a testament to my self-control that I wasn’t actually opening the wine bottle at 3pm!)
Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?
Drinking in college was, I must say, really fun. We had so much physical resilience back then. I remember feeling only a little tired the morning after drinking quantities that would probably astonish me now. And social life at my college was centered on campus, so no one ever had to get behind of the wheel of the car or take any other stupid risks.
Has culture or religion influenced your drinking?
I grew up in a purely secular Jewish family, so it’s not like we were having wine every Friday night (as I do now with my own children), but I still think I absorbed an inherently “Jewish” attitude about drinking: that it’s a normal part of life, one that’s neither demonized nor overemphasized. As I said above, I remember being allowed to take a sip of my parents’ wine or beer and no one made a big deal about it. I think we may even have been given our own glass with a tiny bit of wine at special dinners.
What do you like most about drinking?
I like the way alcohol elevates an occasion from feeling merely ordinary to special. Whether it’s opening a good bottle of wine at a dinner party or having a fancy cocktail in a restaurant, alcohol to me signifies “enjoyable, adult evening.” That’s not to say I can’t have an enjoyable, adult evening without alcohol – I do that all the time. But it can add an extra layer of pleasure to the experience.
What’s your drink of choice? Why?
I have a fondness for retro martini glasses, the incongruity of that wide, angular bowl perched on a skinny stem, and the way it feels perfectly balanced in your hand. So I’m a sucker for anything served in a martini glass, regardless of the drink! And I love Canton, a ginger liqueur that’s clean and crisp – in no way cloying – that works beautifully in mixed cocktails.