Bitter magic: the subversive potential of a forgotten taste
Behold the bitter gourd.
This is a vegetable I first encountered in India, one of the many that was new and unfamiliar to my supermarketed modes of perception, my monocultured taste buds. Frankly it looked freakish to me, like a cucumber crossed with a trigger-point ball.
"What the heck is that?" I said to my then-boyfriend, stopped in my tracks in the bazaar.
"It's called karela. You wouldn't like it."
"It's very bitter. But it's good to clean the blood."
Cleaner blood did not sound like a reason to eat something I wouldn't like anyway and so I never actually got a taste of the bitter gourd. But what my boyfriend said was true in a sense. Bitter foods stimulate the digestive organs to produce gastric secretions, including bile from the liver. Bile helps the body break down fats, absorb nutrients and eliminate wastes.
But that's only the tip of the bitter iceberg, as it were. Bitters are anti-inflammatory for the tissues, relaxing to the smooth muscle fibres and a boon to the gut biome. They cut down on sugar cravings and promote feelings of satiety. Bitters do so much good, so much of what we in our overstimulated, overfilled culture need that one has to wonder: Why are they not the new-new thing?
The new superfood, the new diet fad, the new supplement saviour?
Those of you who know me will not be surprised to learn that I Have a Theory About This. Which is that culture is never just a set of customs and beliefs. It is colours and textures, smells and tastes. And the taste of capitalism is tooth-aching sweetness.
Why is Coca-Cola the quintessential emblem of consumerism? Consider candy bars, cheerleaders, bubble-gum pop. TV sitcoms and rom-com movies, all canned laughter and trite sentiment. Consider the concept of "customer service:" the performed smiles, the feigned (often strained) expressions of concern, the hearty congratulations on a successful purchase or profuse apologies in the event of dissatisfaction.
It's all so cloying. So sweet and empty.
Bitterness is antithesis to this kind of sweetness. It has depth. It stimulates. It challenges.
Is it a coincidence that bitterness gets banished the more capitalism ramps up? Sugar played a key role in the mercantilism of the 17th and 18th centuries, through its production by slaves bonded to plantations in the New World, and then fuelled the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries through its consumption by workers in European factories. Even today sugar remains one of the king commodities on the financial markets.
If capitalism were a fabric, it would be shot through with golden ribbons of corn syrup, dark threads of molasses, tacky tufts of cotton candy and sparkling crystals of refined sugar.
To follow on from that metaphor, it stands to reason that bitters might just be the blade to cut the Gordian knots woven of that fabric, which tie us to deforestation at one end and diabetes on the other. Maybe it sounds too simple, or even a little crazy. But I really feel like there is something to cultivating the taste that our tissues and organs are hungry for rather than the one that is sold to us in boxes and bottles, to feeding the gut brain with the complex flavour of subversion rather than the empty calories of complicity, that could be the key to a subtle but momentous shift. Maybe it will help us imagine a different way of living, working and relating; not just to ourselves and other humans but to all of the creatures of the living world and the Earth herself. To befriend the bitter, I believe, is to know that truth is sweet.