An Appreciation of the Wine Doctor 

Long before it was fashionable, Salvatore Lucia insisted that wine was the key to good health.

A wine-loving epidemiologist named Salvatore Pablo Lucia is the author of my favorite cookbook from which I never cook.

I discovered The Wine Diet Cookbook in a used bookstore in the early 1990s, some twenty years after its publication. Its cover bore a picture of some grapes, an onion, some raw meat, an egg, half a lemon, and, of course, a glass of red wine. The book's jacket revealed that it was both a treatise on the benefits of wine in weight loss — slimming, in Lucia's lexicon — and the prevention of disease, as well as a 28-day diet. Three meals a day made with, and paired with, wine.

My first thought was, I don't need this book, I'm already on that diet! But upon further examination, it became clear that no, I really wasn't. My usual breakfast was not a tomato yoghurt shake and toast with deviled ham (page 33). I was not lunching on seafood aspic and black coffee (page 48) or Bavarian broccoli mold with crabmeat (page 97). Dr. Lucia's suggested dinners — jellied chicken loaf with a California Chablis, mushroom cocktail with something called Remi's veal sauté and a Grey Riesling — confirmed my growing suspicion that food was not actually Dr. Lucia's thing. Philosophy, however, was the doctor's thing, and his impassioned manifesto and exuberant delivery quickly won me over. He proudly proclaimed wine "the most important medicinal agent in continuous use throughout the history of man," and wrote, "Chilled or not, wine will bring many pleasurable moments to dieter and nondieter alike. High in nutritive value, economical in calories, with color to bewitch the eye and flavors to suit any palate."

Long before it was fashionable, Salvatore Lucia insisted to everyone who would listen that wine consumption wasn't just a component of good health, but the key to it. A gifted scholar who graduated with honors from Berkeley despite never having gone to high school, he earned his M.D. at UCSF, and did his internship there. He then dove into research, with stints at schools in Italy and London, before returning to UCSF as an instructor in medicine in 1932. Around this time he began combining his loves of wine and medicine more publicly, helping to found the Society of Medical Friends of Wine in 1939. The organization, headquartered in Walnut Creek, is still going strong, with its members rallying around a very Lucia-esque mission: to "stimulate scientific research on wine, develop an understanding of its beneficial effects, and encourage an appreciation of the conviviality and good fellowship that are a part of the relaxed and deliberate manner of living that follows its proper use."

Lucia went on to author seven books on wine and health, including Wine as Food and Medicine and A History of Wine as Therapy. (Some of us are on that diet, too.) But it's his last book that is, in my view, his masterpiece. And lest you misunderstand my reluctance to cook from it, please know that the recipes in The Wine Diet Cookbook aren't bad, per se — they're just so resolutely '70s. The resulting dishes seem alive somehow, more like kitschy performance art than food, especially by today's free-range, organic, artisanal standards. This book is worth its weight in gold, simply as an artifact of its time.

When I first started writing about wine, I became aware of the strong connection between my prized cookbook and the teaching hospital a mere ten blocks from my San Francisco apartment. And I began to fantasize about the perfect interview: a civilized sit-down with Dr. Salvatore Pablo Lucia, age 105. I'd visit with him in some book-filled study with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge; we'd nosh on brandied coffee strada (page 53) and sip a dry Sauterne. He'd do a few one-armed push-ups, and I'd be on my way.

He really could be alive, I reasoned, and how karmic and right it would be if all that chipped beef and compote and black coffee and claret had conspired to make him a hearty centenarian. I was picturing an earthier, Tuscan version of Jack LaLanne, complete with turquoise tracksuit, running circles around all those jokers hopped up on cayenne pepper and lemon juice. After all, foodie legend and Lucia pal M.F.K. Fisher herself had once described a punch the doctor had made for a party as "a sure claim to immortality, if a good doctor in this world of ungood ones needs such a spiritual guarantee."

Alas, Lucia did not make it to 100. He died at 83 in 1984, mercifully several years before the world turned against his beloved carbohydrates. But just as legions of carb-rejecting acolytes surely mourned more than just the man when Dr. Atkins met his end, so Lucia was mourned — by devotees in both the medical and food-and-wine communities, not to mention the lively intersection between the two.

Salvatore, we hardly knew you. Thanks for the mushroom cocktail, and the manifesto. Both will surely live on.

Creamed Chip Beef on Toast

Excerpted from The Wine Diet Cookbook

(Serves 2, 266 calories per serving)

1/2 cup undiluted evaporated skim milk

1/2 cup cold water

2 tablespoons instant blending flour

1/2 teaspoon chicken stock base

1 teaspoon diet margarine

2 tablespoons shredded Cheddar cheese

1 tablespoon California Medium Sherry

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 teaspoon prepared mustard

1 teaspoon chopped chives

1 (3 oz.) package smoked sliced beef, cut up with scissors

Seasoned salt and pepper to taste

2 slices crisp toast

In saucepan combine evaporated milk, water, flour, and chicken stock base; stir over medium heat until mixture boils and thickens. Add margarine, cheese, Sherry, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and chives; stir over low heat until margarine and cheese melt and blend with the sauce. Add beef to sauce, season with salt and pepper. Serve piping hot on toast.

Recommended for lunch on Day 2 and breakfast on Day 20 of Dr. Lucia's 28-day wine diet.


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