Today is the birthday (1879) of Robert Holbrook Smith, also known as Dr. Bob, a U.S. physician and surgeon who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) with Bill Wilson, more commonly known as Bill W. Bill W. is much better known both inside and outside AA because he is credited as the author of the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism), in which all manner of AA philosophies are expounded, especially the 12 Steps. But it was the meeting of Bill W with Dr Bob that set the whole process of AA in motion, and without the collaboration of Bill W with Dr Bob it is unlikely that AA would have existed.
Dr Bob was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, where he was raised. His parents took him to religious services four times a week, and in response he determined he would never attend religious services when he grew up. Smith began drinking at university, attending Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Early on he noticed that he could recover from drinking bouts quicker and easier than his classmates and that he never had headaches, which caused him to believe he was an alcoholic from the time he began drinking. Smith was a member of Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternity at Dartmouth. After graduation in 1902, he worked for three years selling hardware in Boston, Chicago, and Montreal and continued drinking heavily. He then returned to school to study medicine at the University of Michigan. By this time drinking had begun to affect him to the point where he began missing classes. His drinking caused him to leave school, but he returned and passed his examinations for his sophomore year. He transferred to Rush Medical College, but his alcoholism worsened to the point that his father was summoned to try to halt his downward trajectory. But his drinking increased and after a dismal showing during final examinations, the university required that he remain for two extra quarters and remain sober during that time as a condition of graduating.
After graduation Smith became a hospital intern, and for two years he was able to stay busy enough to refrain from heavy drinking. He married Anne Robinson Ripley on January 25, 1915, and opened up his own office in Akron, Ohio, specializing in colorectal surgery and returned to heavy drinking. Recognizing his problem, he checked himself into more than a dozen hospitals and sanitariums in an effort to stop his drinking. He was encouraged by the passage of Prohibition in 1919, but soon discovered that the exemption for medicinal alcohol and bootleggers could supply more than enough to continue his excessive drinking. For the next 17 years his life revolved around how to subvert his wife’s efforts to stop his drinking and obtain the alcohol he wanted while trying to hold together a medical practice in order to support his family and his drinking.
In January 1933, Anne Smith attended a lecture by Frank Buchman, the founder of the Oxford Group. For the next two years she and Dr Bob attended local meetings of the group in an effort to solve his alcoholism, but recovery eluded him until he met Bill Wilson on May 13, 1935.
Bill W was trying to stay sober by helping other alcoholics through the Oxford Group in New York, but was in Akron on a business trip that had proven unsuccessful, and was in fear of relapsing. Recognizing the danger, he made inquiries about any local alcoholics he could talk to and was referred to Dr Bob by Henrietta Sieberling, one of the leaders of the Akron Oxford Group. After talking to Bill W, Dr Bob stopped drinking and invited Bill W to stay at his home. This was the seminal moment in the founding of AA.
Bill W and Dr Bob discovered a key ingredient in recovery at that time, namely, one’s sobriety can be bolstered constantly by listening to the stories of other alcoholics in a non-judgmental way. You might call it the “listening cure,” a sort of mirror of Freud’s talking cure. Bill W listened to Dr Bob, and vice versa, and both were helped by simply listening to the story of the other. This became the heart of AA, although it has been subverted in many ways since.
Generally speaking, AA is now known for the 12 steps, which have been incorporated into numerous programs of aid for addicts of all stripes, and which were originally devised by Bill W and Dr Bob in the course of their work together and with other alcoholics — and enshrined in the Big Book. The 12 steps have their supporters and their detractors, without doubt. They require a spiritual awakening, self analysis, confession and so forth, that mimic certain aspects of puritan Christianity, even though the overtly Christian, even theistic, rhetoric was eventually toned down. The part of AA that too often gets underplayed is the listening cure. The most important point about the listening cure is that it is not about giving or receiving advice: it is about the simple acts of talking and listening. One alcoholic tells his story and another listens. The listener does not offer advice, but simply absorbs the story. Nor does the person telling the story offer any advice either. The story is usually some version of, “I did that and things got worse; I did this and things got better.” The listener is then left to absorb and interpret the story in any way that suits — in common AA parlance, “take what is useful, and leave the rest.”
Bill W’s great insight was that he benefited from hearing Dr Bob’s story, pure and simple. No advice or commentary was necessary. In this sense we can speak of Bill W and Dr Bob as co-founders of AA, even though Bill W became the poster boy, and Dr Bob tends to be forgotten. In Gregory Bateson’s terms (I’ll write a post on his work at some time), Bill W and Dr Bob were a dyad: each needed the other. Each needed a listener, and each needed to listen. The essential message, all too often forgotten nowadays, is, “don’t judge, don’t offer advice, just listen.” In my oh so humble opinion, the world would be a lot better place if everyone learned to listen more and talk less.
My recipes are a little like AA talks in that I tell you what I do and what I like, but you can do what you want. In fact, I’m not sure how many readers have actually tried any of my recipes. I do know that a friend used one of them once, and modified it to his own tastes. As far as I am concerned that’s the best way to use any recipe. I tell you what I do; you decide what you want to do. As long as it works, we are both fine.
With cooking for recovering alcoholics there is a rule of sorts, but it’s not hard and fast. AA recommends that you not cook with alcohol for two reasons. First, not all alcohol always cooks away when you use alcoholic drinks in recipes. Second, the taste of the alcoholic drink remains even if all or almost all of the alcohol burns off. In either case, the alcoholic in recovery can be reminded of drinking by the dish and may be, consciously or unconsciously, encouraged to pick up a drink. But you can’t really call this a rule. Active alcoholics vary greatly in the their habits, and so do those in recovery. Some, for example, are so sensitive to reminders of drinking that they will avoid drinking any liquid straight from a bottle (in the way they used to drink beer or whisky), others can cook with wine or spirits and not be fazed.
To be safe I’ll give you a summer lunch idea that I use for guests once in a while. It does not involve alcohol. Take from it what you want and leave the rest. August in Mantua is hot and humid, so if I want to entertain guests it’s a good idea not to cook for them immediately before or during the meal because the kitchen gets really hot and spills over into the dining area. Besides hot dishes do not always go down well in the summer. So sometimes I make a lunch or dinner of different salads. The idea is to give diners an extensive choice of vegetables, carbs, and protein and let them choose how to make up a plate. This is a lunch of five salads I made in Argentina in the height of summer some years ago.
This is a blend of endive, fennel, and roquette (arugula). The idea was to have pronounced flavors and crunchiness.
Cabbage and Caper Salad
I’ve always been a fan of making salad from fresh cabbage, by cutting the cabbage into shreds and macerating it overnight in the refrigerator with some kind of vinegar. In this case I used capers with all their juice. Shred the cabbage fine, put it into a bowl, dump a whole bottle of capers over it, mix well, and refrigerate overnight.
Cooked fish and shellfish, served cold, work well as the protein element. This one was halibut, sea legs (imitation crab), and calamari.
Pasta salad is a common summer favorite of mine. Cook the pasta al dente the day before. Drain it well and refrigerate it overnight. Next day add your choice of vegetables. In this case I used tomatoes, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Toss with extra virgin olive oil and oregano.
I wash potatoes thoroughly and then dice them without peeling, and boil them until they are cooked but not too soft. Whilst the potatoes are cooking I sauté some ham or bacon until it is crisp. Then I drain the potatoes and refrigerate them, and break the cooked ham into pieces over the top. When cool I add mayonnaise and toss. Then I decorate with sliced boiled egg.
Make up a plate of these salads any way that you want.