“Wanna know why I’m happier when I see an unopened beer can than when I see an empty one?” my cousin Chloe quizzed me as we walked down the street.
“Why?” ten-year-old me replied, wide-eyed.
“Because if it’s empty, someone drank it,” she said, solemnly.
As a Mormon child, someone having drunk a beer was the grimmest of tragedies.
As Mormons, we were privileged to know that everyone is here on earth to learn and be tested, and that our eternal well-being relies on obedience to God’s laws. We were the ones who God had chosen to tell extra (and somehow also essential) bits of information, like that heaven had levels and that only people married in a Mormon temple get into the highest heaven. We knew that God was our Heavenly Father who loved us, and we were his children. We didn’t know much about Heavenly Mother, but we had one of those too; she was just too sacred to talk about.
We knew that Heavenly Father had shareable power and that power was called the priesthood and the priesthood was only given to males 12 years old and older who told their ecclesiastical leaders they were doing a good job following God’s laws. We didn’t often talk about why God didn’t give that power to women (something about how women are mothers, and that’s powerful too?). We knew that Heavenly Father had ordained a living prophet here on the earth—just like Moses, but for Mormons—since 1830 and ours was a grandfatherly-looking white guy in a suit named Gordon B. Hinckley.
We had something called the Word of Wisdom, a revelation the first Mormon prophet Joseph Smith received from God when he prayed about all the guys in church chewing and spitting tobacco that his wife had to clean up. The Word of Wisdom said things like “[the] flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly” and “every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof.” It said to enjoy with “prudence and thanksgiving.”
We somehow, though, never talked about whether we were eating too much meat or enough fruit and herbs in season or whether we were prudent and thankful enough in our consumption. Instead, we narrowed in on “strong drinks are not for the belly” and “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” It had been decided that meant we were banned from alcohol and from tea and coffee. We were banned from tobacco too.
We didn’t talk about how, when the revelation had been received, they read “hot drinks” to mean, well, drinks that are hot, and gave sermons about hot chocolate and soup being bad for the body and the belly. By the time I was born into Mormonism, we were very much pro hot chocolate and soup again, but alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco were banned, and if you partook in any of the above, you were banned from some forms of Mormon worship until you repented of that sin. Diet Coke was fine, chocolate was fine, but coffee was very much not fine.
Mormons believe in something called continuing revelation, meaning that God can tell prophets different things at different times, and both of those things were from God, even if those things seem to be contradictory. Before 1978, black people were banned from the priesthood and therefore banned from the highest echelons of heaven. In the early days of the church, it was taught that polygamy was God’s highest law and there were sermons about how the worldly, carnal Romans had instituted monogamy in blatant disregard to God’s laws. We didn’t think about that now, though, because God had given us different instructions and God was always right. You don’t editorialize when God reveals things to you—you just feel a warm fuzzy feeling, which is God telling you that everything is okay, despite you not completely understanding.
I grew up going to weekly, three-hour Mormon church and hearing Sunday School lessons where we talked about how lucky we were to not be addicted to alcohol, tobacco, tea, or coffee.
“I just know I’d be addicted right away, and I feel so blessed to not ever have to deal with that,” they would say, sometimes teary-eyed.
I felt blessed too. You feel blessed when God cares enough about you to give you special guidance. You don’t worry about how that guidance sounds to other people.
My first sip of alcohol was at brunch when I was 21. I was eating at a restaurant called Communal in Provo, Utah. I had about three weeks of school left at Brigham Young University, where I had signed papers saying that I would obey all the Mormon rules. In return, I would get cheap tuition and the privilege of attending the Lord’s university. I was with my friends Dane and Brad, both gay, both trying to make it through BYU as fast as they could. Being found out as a gay person at BYU could mean expulsion for not following God’s laws.
We ordered food. They ordered mimosas. Brad asked if I wanted a taste of his. I did.
I had a sip, then another one. I ordered my own. Reality felt lighter, fluffier. We laughed and chatted and enjoyed our meal.
When I got home, I was still buzzed. I got a text from my housemate, asking me to help move her car from a street or so over back to our garage.
My brain screeched to a stop.
God’s intervention had been swift. He loved me too much to let me continue to drink alcohol, and it was time to step in. I would help move the car, crash it because I was buzzed, get a DUI, then be kicked out of BYU. All for my own good, all because it was better that all this happen than I be allowed to continue to break the Word of Wisdom. It was for my eternal salvation.
I texted back, “Oh sorry, I’d love to, but I’m out and won’t be back for a while.” I turned the light off in my room and tried to take a nap.
I continued to drink mimosas, then terrible vodka smoothies at Dane’s and Brad’s, then beers at parties, then wine at fancy dinner parties when I moved to New York City. Sometimes, I abstained for a few weeks or months because I felt guilty for disappointing God. When I would go back to drinking, I’d get nervous, drink too much, and spend the night on my bathroom floor, or worse, the bathroom floor of my friends who threw the parties. My New York friends, who had learned how to drink 5-7 years ago and who grew up with families who didn’t teach them that drinking alcohol broke God’s heart, wondered what my problem was. I wondered too.
One day, I volunteered to assist at a wine and cheese 101, which meant I helped set up and clean up in exchange for a free class. I had been to a few cheese classes and was already enchanted by the history, culture, and geography of cheese—the fact that sheep exist in some places rather than cows because they can handle rocky terrain better, the fact that the molds that ripened these cheeses had come from caves and basements and had first jumped onto cheese accidentally. All these beautiful flavors had been created serendipitously, and I thought that information was almost as beautiful as the cheeses themselves.
We tasted the first wine, a sparkling wine from France. We learned that the bubbles in the wine were a byproduct of the fermentation process, and making wine in what was called the “traditional method” trapped the carbon dioxide that fermentation naturally released, and thus our wine was cheerful and bubbly. This was different, the instructor pointed out, than the much more industrial process of carbonating something like Diet Coke.
We tasted a light red wine, made from a grape called Gamay. We learned that it was originally from a region of France called Burgundy (a region that people seemed to think was fancy and important), but that it had been banned there in 1395 by Duke Philip the Bold for being an “evil and disloyal plant” and “injurious to the human creature.”
The Gamay was served a bit colder than I was used to drinking red wine, but I loved it—refreshing, crisp, and fruity in a way that wasn’t sweet or cloying. It was like you picked raspberries and roses straight from the garden, and maybe dropped a few into the dirt on your way back into the house. It was beautiful. I had it with Comte, one of my new favorite cheeses, and it was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz where everything goes from black and white to color. The two were clearly meant for each other—how could anything so beautiful break God’s heart?
There’s a Mormon scripture that my dad has framed in his office, which exhorts the reader to learn “Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms.”
I was tasting wine, yes, but I also was learning about countries and kingdoms and the earth’s offerings in a way that gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling I used to have when I learned about the intricacies of Mormonism or when I prayed for someone to get well if they were sick. It felt like everything was okay.
I kept tasting wine and kept learning. I learned my body’s limits and stopped spending the nights on bathroom floors. My friends started asking me for wine recommendations. I now write about cheese and wine for a living and have taught classes across the United States on both.
Much like Mormonism, there are certainly dark sides to wine. When done industrially, viticulture can deplete the soil. When we drink too much wine, it is harmful to our health. But, when made and enjoyed with “prudence and thanksgiving,” as the Mormon scripture says, wine can be beautiful in a way that little else can.
If there’s a God, I think he/she/they would enjoy that Gamay right along with me, and be pleased for those of us who have learned that beauty can be its own education in this strange, beautiful world.
Christine Clark is a professional cheese and beverage nerd. Her work has appeared in VinePair, Fine Cooking, Travel + Leisure, and AFAR, and she has been featured in Bon Appetit, Complex, Epicurious, and the Huffington Post. She is a Certified Cheese Professional by the American Cheese Society. In her spare time, she plays with her dog and plans her next meal. Follow her latest eating adventures on Instagram @yourcheesefriend.