Virgin Drink Reminder

There is no reader question this week. Instead, Helena has a few things she wants to put right.

Recently, several readers have expressed concern that I’m an alcoholic. After rereading a few of my old columns, I felt quite concerned myself. Table Manners does make my life seem like an endless round of cocktail parties and drunken dinners. But that’s because it’s a column about the etiquette of eating and drinking, and alcohol is the cause of many etiquette dilemmas. Believe it or not, I don’t actually drink that much because I’m such a lightweight. Two margaritas and I need to be poured into a cab.

After I confessed to breaking a plate while drunk a couple of months ago, one reader observed: “Way too many of your columns seem to take as a given that the reason to go to a party is to get smashed.” I don’t believe the purpose of a party is to get blotto, but I confess I do believe that you can’t have a party without alcohol. There’s a reason it’s called a social lubricant. And alcoholic drinks add glamour: A glass of wine in the hand looks naturally elegant. Yes, this is the result of cultural conditioning, but that doesn’t make it any less true. A party without booze is like a party without shoes: not sexy.

Nonetheless, just to redress the balance a little, this week’s column tackles two common faux pas related to abstinence.

Not Offering Virgin Drinks

A few months ago, I had a cocktail party and was dismayed to see a pregnant guest searching for a drink. I’d spent so much time squeezing limes for a tequila-peach concoction that I’d neglected even to stock seltzer. Hosts should provide something other than tap water for nondrinking guests. Brian Preston-Campbell, author of Cool Waters, suggests making a virgin version of the cocktail you’re already making. “This works well with drinks that have a tropical flavor,” and other cocktails that include fruit juices. Terry Walters, author of Clean Food, rarely drinks herself, and recommends hot “spiced kukicha tea with apple cider and spices” for the holidays.

But if the thought of making a special drink stresses you out, even a simple gesture like steeping some cucumber and orange slices in a pitcher of water, or stocking some tasty bitters and club soda, shows you care.

Offering or Demanding Too Much Explanation

Sometimes you have to tell people you’re on the wagon—like if your host tries to fill your wineglass. In that case, just murmur, “Thanks, I’m not drinking right now,” or “I don’t drink.” Some people can’t resist further probing: “Is that a permanent thing? Is it for health reasons or something else?” But it’s rude of them to solicit additional information, however obliquely. Your reason may well be something you don’t want to share (such as if you are in recovery, six weeks pregnant, or taking antidepressants that don’t mix well with booze).

If you’re abstaining for health reasons, you shouldn’t make a big fuss about it, any more than you should dwell on your reason for refusing dessert. If you’re on a juice fast or training for a marathon, that’s great, but no one wants to hear about it while drinking a double vodka tonic.

In fact, you may not need to announce your decision at all. There’s no need to lie, but you could simply choose a nonalcoholic drink that looks like a real one. No one will know if your orange juice doesn’t have vodka in it.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.