Angostrura bitters (originally from Venezuela, now made in Trinidad & Tobago), and Advertisement from 1883
Dictionary.com defines bitter as:
bit·teradjective, -er, -est, noun, verb, adverb
1. having a harsh, disagreeably acrid taste, like that of aspirin, quinine, wormwood, or aloes.
2. producing one of the four basic taste sensations; not sour, sweet, or salt.
3. hard to bear; grievous; distressful: a bitter sorrow.
4. causing pain; piercing; stinging: a bitter chill.
5. characterized by intense antagonism or hostility: bitter hatred.
Common expressions, like the above definitions, carry negative connotations:
to the bitter end
the bitter truth
bitter pill to swallow
Some cultures have maintained the practice of imbibing bitter drinks or eating bitter greens before, or sometimes after, meals. Taking bitters before eating sends signals to the body that food will soon be on its way. Our mouth salivates and our gastric juices start flowing. Our digestion slows down so that we're able to absorb more nutrients from our fuel, the food that we eat. Even the mere act of having a ritual before eating helps promote good digestion, because we take pause to be present and acknowledge that we're preparing to nourish our bodies with food. Or at least send food down the hatch.
This is a far cry from the mainstream US model of eating - on the run, in the car, barely chewing, or skipping meals altogether. One of the most important lessons I've learned about digestion is: Our stomachs do not have teeth! We are not meant to inhale food like a Hoover and send it to our stomachs barely chewed. Rather, we're meant to sit still (not in front of the computer!), chew, breath, and masticate - break down our food mechanically with our teeth and then later further breaking the food down chemically, with our body's digestive juices. Eating fast and not chewing properly gets us off to a bad start. And we could be eating the most gorgeous, homegrown/farmers' market-fresh, local, etc. foods, but if we don't digest it properly, much of that nourishment is going straight through us and out the other end.
The simple act of taking a few dropperfuls of bitters before each meal can remedy much of the digestional mayhem that many of us experience. And even if you don't experience digestional distress, some of us experience secondary effects of not absorbing our foods' nutrients, which bitters can help get to the root of.
Though the taste's importance is often forgotten or unknown, many are continuing or reviving the practice of taking bitters before meals. Last week I attended an event hosted by Urban Moonshine, where clinical herbalist Guido Masé gave a presentation about the importance bitters. While I had previously learned about the value of bitters and how the mainstream US diet is generally lacking in it, I hadn't thought before about how this is connected with the US obsession with sweetness. When I think of sweetness, I think of honey from my friends' hives, sweet potatoes and winter squash, and maybe a bit of local maple syrup. In general, though, sweetness in the US means refined sugar, which historically has meant plantations, slavery, and exploitative global trade. With the advent of high fructose corn syrup, this domestic sweetness directly correlates with rises in diabetes and malnutrition that comes not through lack of food, but through lack of nutrients in the food we eat. Guido connected this rise in sugars in the US diet with the monocropping in the corn belt, where entire states grow this subsidized grain almost exclusively. Removing the bitterness from our diet leaves our collective sweet tooth unchecked.
I don't eat much refined sugar, but I used to. When I stopped I was able to appreciate the natural sweetness of roasted root crops like beets and sweet potatoes. Now, once I start eating foods that contain refined sugar it's often hard to stop. Just one more, maybe another, and there you go, you're laying on the floor, surrounded by only crumbs and an empty cookie jar next to you. Okay, it may not regularly get that dramatic (or it may...), but it's quite common to eat sweets far past the point of indulging in a little something special. Sugar is addictive. Taking bitters can curb those sweet cravings and balance blood sugar. As Guido explained, when we don't take bitters, which challenge our bodies so that it can digest well, that challenge, that burden, is placed on the environment. Rows and rows of corn,* aisles and aisles of junk food. And it's not that we shouldn't enjoy some sweetness in our life, but that sweetness comes with great effort. Tasting a fresh piece of sugarcane reminds me of summer watermelons. It's quite different than refined white sugar. And sap straight from a maple tree only carries a hint of sweetness. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make just 1 gallon of maple syrup. (The real deal, not the artificially flavored Log Cabin stuff). And anyone who's watched blossoming Anise Hyssop and other pollinator-luring flowers knows that those honey bees work mighty hard gathering nectar that they transform into the thick amber honey that we humans gather for ourselves.
Thinking about the balance of bitter and sweet makes me think of my favorite Khalil Gibran quotation, from The Prophet, "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain." Whether it's the taste or the emotion, trying to have nothing but sweetness isn't real and can come at a great cost. We need the bitter to balance out the sweet, and we need the sweet to balance out the bitter.
Dandelioness Herbals offers Spring Tonic, a tincture that can be taken all year round, combining the bitter roots of Dandelion, Burdock, and Yellow Dock roots with juicy fresh Nettles and Maple sap! And plain old (amazing!) whole Dandelion tincture on it own is a fabulous bitter. Relaxing Bitters is made with Dandelion, Skullcap, and Lavender for those who need some calm when they eat. Our nervous and digestive systems are entwined and calming the nerves can also help promote good digestion. Bitters also support the liver, which plays an important role in processing our hormones. Our livers work really hard by just existing in the world (ie exposure to pollution and chemicals, stress, not enough rest or nourishing foods) and greatly benefit from some bitter support. For those who menstruate, supporting our livers with the regular use of bitters can help balance hormones throughout the menstrual cycle and ease or prevent PMS symptoms. All Dandelioness Herbals bitter blends contain Dandelion flower essence, which captures the radiance of this persistent and abundant blossom, and helps to release physical and emotional tension in the body and move stagnation.
So, there's the sweet truth about bitters. They're good, we need them. So, go harvest some dandelion greens, go eat some arugula or lettuce, take a bitters blend. Feel what happens in your body - see if you salivate a bit, feel some rumbling in your stomach (it's saying "I'm ready, bring it on!), and over time see how it affects your cravings and your digestion. Happy feasting! ¡Buen provecho! Bon appetit! And as you pause before eating to take your bitters, feel free to give a moment of thanks for the many hands that labored to bring you your food - the farmer, the (migrant) farm worker, the trucker, the grocery store workers, the cook - as well as the sun and the water and the bees...
Freshly-harvested Dandelion roots and Burdock roots
Fresh juicy Nettles in Co. Sligo, Ireland and vibrant Dandelion blossoms
For more info on Dandelions, see The Dandelions Are Here!
*=upon rereading this post, I've found that my relationship to corn is much different now than when I first wrote this. I want to acknowledge corn as a nourishing food that is deeply intertwined with many cultures throughout the Americas. Tamales and tortillas, atole and other nourishing foods and drinks, not to mention the ceremonial importance and use, is vastly different than the mainstream monocropping of corn and how it's most commonly ingested in mainstream US food - as high fructose corn syrup. My intention is not to disrespect this plant or the cultures that value it deeply, but rather to note how in its processed form it has negative health effects.
(Some changes made, with photos and links added, Oct 2013, Nov 2014, & Nov 2015)