How did bitter (the flavor) get such a bad rap? How and when did it attain a negative reputation?
I assume (and please correct me if I’m wrong), that the feelings associated with the flavor and the metaphoric use of it came later than the idea that it was a bad taste.
Do we not like the taste of bitterness because we know that it’s “bad” or does it have a bad connotation because of its inherent nature?
The fact is that the taste of bitterness, on its own, isn’t pleasant. There are many toxic substances that are bitter, so this is perhaps a piece of the makeup of the universe helping to guide us towards life. It ultimately comes down to an argument of nature or nurture–do we not like bitterness because we know it’s bad or do do we assign it a negative connotation because it can be bad?
But here’s what’s interesting: bitterness combined with other flavors is really, really tasty. Bittersweet chocolate, a good gin and tonic, and coffee are all really tasty (to my tastebuds, at least–other bitter combinations may be on your list). Bitterness works in a complex way, helping to sharpen a flavor experience and offer a unique taste.
And perhaps that’s why we eat bitter herbs during the Passover seder–why we mix it with the sweet charoset, as well as eating it on its own. Bitterness can transform other flavors–and can become a uniquely pleasurable flavor of its own when another flavor is brought to it.
Like life. When bitter things happen, when we feel bitter, or when we have a bitter memory–other experiences can help to transform that bitterness into something different. The sweetness of spending time with a friend, the salty catharsis of tears, the electricity created by a sour moment, and umami–well umami just makes everything more interesting.
Our bitter times may still be bitter–they may still bite at us through memory throughout our lives. But we do not have to be or become entirely bitter. We can transform those times into futures of delicious complexity.
Our slavery in Egypt was collective time of bitter experience. As we moved away from it, though, it became an experience through which we tasted freedom–and became a people.