The Kindness of Sinister Bitterness

The English language contains abundant terms both for approbation and contempt, most disclosing a bias of which its speakers are unaware. If, for example, you say that someone is “adroit” or “dextrous,” you invoke the moral privilege of the majority — a privilege grounded in the numerically dominant status of the right-handed. From the same source, the language derives “sinister,” the Latin word for left.

One could produce a hundred more, noting along the way the language’s many archaic built-in biases. Consider the metaphors derived from light and dark, white and black, sweetness and bitterness. An anglophone may speak of a sweet tooth, and he can say also that he is “sweet on someone.” Only a few years ago, the word sweet became a stand-alone phrase. The bias toward sweetness is evolutionary. To say that sugar is one’s lifeblood is to utter a tautology, for the sweet tooth is a simple acknowledgement of our biological reliance upon a simple monosaccharide known as glucose. (Here two aforementioned terms combine in the word dextrose, or D-glucose, which refers to so-called “right-handed glucose” found widely in nature.) We nod to the carbohydrate every time we call someone sweetheart.

We have evolved to equate sweetness with pleasure. Sweet in most cases indicates a food’s high degree of stored energy and lack of toxicity. There have been unfortunate deviations from this evolutionary rule, one example (to return to the Romans) the perceived sweetness of lead acetate. Despite exceptions, however, most of us are sweet on sweetness. But not all of us.

I seek out the bitter and the sour: black coffee, dark chocolate, sour chews. I will take gin and Campari, or an ESB, over any sugary cocktail. I haven’t had a Coke or Pepsi since about 1989, and even the smell of the stuff is slightly nauseating to me if I get too much of a whiff. But I have very much acquired the taste of bitter ales and scotch and sour apples and Guinness (not particularly bitter, I concede) and a good many other things beside which I gather really are “acquired tastes.” It may be that my very blood is bitter and fuels itself upon acids, an admission my detractors will greet with nods of approval. But here I only admit that I am sweet on the bitter — that I get precisely from a British IPA or Belgian chocolate what most of the rest of my species prefer to get from soft drinks and donuts and cakes, and that thing is pleasure.

Far from being a negative term, bitterness for me designates an exquisite delight. The more bitter the better. They have yet to brew the too-bitter beer or the too sour candy for my tastes. I usually walk away from the table or the stand just a touch (if not more) disappointed. I want my food to be sharp, spicy, pungent, and bold. I will take the stinkiest Stilton blue over an innocuous Pasteurized cheddar, and the Vindaloo over the Madras. I’ve eaten meals in restaurants while the kitchen staff watch me around the edge of the slightly opened door. They insisted I’d be unable to do it: but here I am, your humble servant.

Nor is my preference for the barbed limited strictly to food. It happens that I am suspicious of anything and anyone appearing ready and eager to please and accommodate the conventional palate. I want the thing as it is, neither processed nor Photoshopped. The cheese which arrives to my plate authentically varicose and redolent is a thing of beauty, much to be preferred to the monstrous orange putty that comes perfectly sliced and wrapped for hygiene. That’s not the world I want to live in: give me dirt and bugs and warts and wrinkles. Above all, give me some flavour and character. And, southpaw that I am, I will return the favour with the kindness of sinister bitterness.

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