Bitterness (serves 1)
1 cup of anger
a heaping half-cup of powerlessness mixed with
a tablespoon of regret and a
big pinch of stagnation
Condense, over time, squeezing it hard into a tiny little ball that looks remarkably like a gall stone, then drop into the body and carry around for a long time.
‘Eat bitter to taste sweetness’ -Chinese proverb.
This proverb, or something like it (I remember something along the lines of ‘eat bitter to avoid a bitter life’), was thrown around a lot when I was at TCM school. Lately, when I’ve been making batches of bitters for the holiday shows I’m doing, I’ve been tossing it around like a hard candy. It’s got me thinking about bitterness and sweetness, and the balance between the two, both in taste and in life.
What is ‘bitterness’ anyway? In our bodies, as taste receptors go, that’s pretty obvious— we learn bitter from an early age: it wrinkles our faces and we learn, as we should, that a little goes a long way. We learn that bitter is strong, and unpleasant. What we don’t learn is that we actually have bitter taste receptors in our lungs. In our GI tracts. In, uh, other places.
We have these receptors for a couple of reasons— the first is that a lot of poisons are bitter, and the flavour serves as an early warning. The second is that triggering them creates a cascade of digestive reactions, from our mouths to our anuses (anii?): digestive juices are squirted out and enzymes are triggered and peristalsis is kicked into gear; stomach acid starts churning; the pancreas releases more pancreatic juices; bile is released; the liver processes more; food is broken down quicker. As a result we absorb more nutrients from our food; bitter is the great digestive efficiency-maker. Every single thing that works along the digestive tract works better with bitters, which isn’t that big a deal if you’re one of those anabolic people who can digest everything, but for the rest of us who have slightly weaker digestion (Food sits in our guts a little longer. We get gassy after meals. Transit time is slow. We feel tired after eating.), bitters are usually a quick and easy fix that make a world of difference.
But, we have a societal aversion to bitter. As an instant gratification society, somewhere along the way we started rejecting the bitter, and everything that comes along with it, and picking out the sweet. Sweet is light, it’s fresh, it makes us feel good. When we eat sweet our eyes get wide and we smile and say ‘more please’ and people indulge us. Sweet is wide-eyed innocent youthfulness: it’s Bambi with its big eyes, or little pig-tailed people or fluffy kittens. Bitter is old and wrinkled, its gnarled and hardened and when we eat it our faces wrinkle and we say things like ‘yeugh’ and spit it out. To be liked in society, we must be sweet, be soft (Winnie the Pooh wanted honey, not dandelion greens). And sweet is nourishing, building, reinforcing. Sweet things (traditionally, pre-processed food I guess) are full of nutrients and trigger insulin which is like a key that unlocks the gates to our cells, allowing the cells to store the nutrients— in that sense, sweetness opens us up, lets us take things in, nourishes us with glucose or fluffy kitten alike.
Sweetness is nourishment and nourishment is self-love. Why is is that we reach for a tub of ice cream when heartbroken? Why is it that the more unsettled and stressful life is the more people tend to crave sweet things? I can’t tell you the number of people I see exhausting themselves and punishing themselves for not being able to do more and be more, who then want a herb to stop the sugar cravings they experience on a constant basis. That sweet is like a hug that you’re allowing yourself, a tiny smidgen of self-care, because even if your brain says ‘no that’s bad’ the body is cleverer than the brain, and wants it anyway. It’s self-acceptance in a jar. Removing it without tackling the other stuff takes away the nourishment and leaves you bereft— it is self punishment in the worst sense.
Maybe our desire for sweetness as a society isn’t simply because we’re all fat and lazy but because we are balancing out the societal self-punishment that is dealt out on a daily basis. And even if we don’t appear to be self-punishing on the surface, we certainly are underneath— have you ever written down the number of self-reprimanding comments your brain makes on a daily basis? Try it. It’s shocking. Then consider those sweet cravings from a different light.
And if sweet is nourishment, what then is bitter? Bitter stimulates digestive juices and enzymes. If sweet builds up, then bitter breaks down— it helps with the process of breaking down foods into their molecular pieces so that they can be more easily absorbed over the gut barrier. Without bitter, digestion slows, as food takes longer to break down. With slowed digestion, you have more old crap (literally) sitting in your body fermenting, creating gas, getting hard. Maybe if you want a sweet life you should avoid being constipated because few things make people as miserable; if someone walks around looking uptight and bitter one might say ‘he looks constipated’ might one not?
But while constipation does refer to the passage of feces through the bowels I personally think of it in situations where there is something that needs to be let out that isn’t. Applying *this* action across the human body and psyche and all of a sudden you have a few other things too: bile, emotions, creativity, sexuality, who we are in the world. And yeah, toxins and waste products. The bitter flavour helps us break things down so that we don’t hold onto them. It’s an energetic action that can be applied to more than one area— feeling angry? Break it down— what angered you and why? When you understand it and break it down, you can express it and do something about it. Express it and all of a sudden you’re not holding onto things and feel lighter and more free. You can move on. Let that shit go.
What is bitterness emotionally? It’s not quite anger; it’s more like an unexpressed anger caused by feelings of powerlessness (see above recipe). Bitterness doesn’t usually just spring upon us, we don’t suffer from ‘acute bitterness’; it’s something that builds over time, starting as anger and transforming, hardening, becoming like a little nut of bile stuck in the body. In its own way, this bitterness is a form of self-protection: we get disappointed enough, feel powerless enough, unable to say ‘YOU HURT ME’ and ‘I’M ANGRY WITH YOU’ enough and we need to form some kind of hard wall that protects us from this happening again. Not only that but that hard wall of bitterness is like a scaffold, strengthening us, making us feel justified in our feelings. It stops us from getting hurt and it makes us feel empowered. Bitterness holds the world at bay, it says ‘don’t eat me because I am poisonous, and don’t get any closer or I will cut you’.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting: In Chinese medicine, the liver is where anger goes— it is responsible for the free-flow of energy around the body and this also relates to emotions. Emotions need to flow freely; they are not constructed to be contained within our bodies but felt, expressed, dealt with, and sent back to neutral. They are notifications systems telling us things about our environment and interactions— the first niggling sense that something is wrong. Or right. Fear and anger both warn us of danger— we feel fear if the situation is something we don’t feel equipped to deal with, and anger if it’s something we can.
Liver function, as with anger expression, can be under or over-active. A liver that operates at a healthy capacity processes a crap-load of blood each day, removing toxins and sending that healthy blood off to the rest of the body. Sometimes the liver under-functions, and sometimes we don’t process enough, and end up with a bunch o’ crap accumulating in the body that gets stuck. A healthy emotional-processing situation does the same: processing the ‘toxic’ stuff and sending it to a place where it can be expressed. Sometimes we feel something and don’t understand it, but instead of breaking it down and looking at it, we just shove it out the way and pretend it’s not there. Bitter foods stimulate this function, the secretion of bile and digestive juices, breaking things down into manageable pieces. An under-functioning liver cannot process, and as a result stagnation happens, be it physical or emotional.
(I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this emotional stagnation is known commonly as ‘liver qi stagnation’ and that there are herbs for it (rose, citrus peels, black cohosh, ocotillo, redroot, bupleurum, etc) and that in itself is a whole other series of posts…)
Bitter, in this sense, treats the bitterness, stimulating the functioning of the liver. An ability to healthily break down, process and express emotions and feel like we have power in our lives means we can move forward and not create that hard nugget of bitterness. And think of this: bitter stimulating secretions, breaking food down, the eating of ‘sweet’ afterwards means that you’ll absorb the nutrients from the food. Not only that but bitters help with insulin response so post-bitter blood sugar levels are much more stable when eating sweet things. You eat the bitter, and then the sweet can nourish you even better as a result.
Or, metaphorically speaking, lets say that bitter is hard work and sweet is relaxation; or bitter is abject misery and sweet is a really good day; or bitter is the process of breaking down the emotional crap allowing us to deal with it, and sweet is experiencing life without pushing that Sisyphean rock. Eat bitter physically and you avoid the bitterness of constipation; eat bitter metaphorically and you avoid a bitter life.
Which brings me to a bitters recipe. I’m going through a hawthorn phase (it’s that time of year), and these are easy to make, delicious, and a nice thing to take a few drops of before meals to help with the digestion factor. Interestingly I find hawthorn to be one of the best herbs for helping a person strengthen their innards and sense of self-worth so that they feel more safe expressing emotions out into the world, so it’s a double whammy. Bitter, slightly sweet, nourishing to the core of who you are and the citrus peel gets that stagnant liver energy moving too. Plus, they’re just plain delicious. Give it a go.
Makes just under a quart
1 tsp dried ginger
4 dried cardamom pods
1 cup dried hawthorn berries
pinch gentian root
1 tsp cinnamon
vodka (any kind, but there’s no point in investing in a super expensive one)
1 1/2 cups sugar
With a potato peeler, peel the rind off the orange. Place that and the rest of the ingredients in a quart size jar, and fill to the brim with vodka. Cover and leave for 4 weeks.
After 4 weeks, strain off the vodka and set aside. Put the strained out ingredients into a pot, add 1 1/2 cup of water and 1 1/2 cup of sugar, the juice and peel of one orange, and bring to a simmer. Simmer, uncovered for around an hour, then strain. At this point you can throw away the herbs. Combine the syrup and the infused vodka. You can either bottle it individually and give as gifts or keep a big bottle for yourself and take a little before meals or add to cocktails.
MANY THANKS to the lovely people on Facebook for indulging my whims and discussing bitterness with me all morning.