One of my favorite cookbooks is called “Bitter: A taste of the worlds most dangerous flavor.”
This probably says more than I would wish about me as a person. It’s a cookbook filled with recipes that play on the oft underused taste of bitter. It often leads me to wonder as I thumb through its glossy pages, have we lost our appreciation for what’s bitter?
Have we lost our taste for bitter? Have we stopped being able to stomach it? More’s the pity if we have. The flavor of bitter gives a strange resonance to our food, it highlights and contrasts with sweetness of sugar, counter plays the velvety coating of fat or butter. It mellows the sour.
The pages of the book are filled with food that is hued with the deep, dark, rich colors of Autumn and Winter. There’s the rich aubergines of eggplant, and the almost magenta plums of radicchio and wine. There are the dark olives and forest greens of kale, and other bitter greens. The eerie, ghostly paleness of frisée and endive. The dark almost midnight color of espresso, chocolate and beer. Make no doubt about it, there’s beauty in the bitter.
We might say we long only for the simpleness of sweet or the rich round notes of that which is lush and fatty, but bitter also has it’s place in life and role to play. Perhaps we’re uncomfortable with bitter because it’s flavor has a haunting way of reminding us of its counter note in life. Bitter tends to remind us of our loss and our pain. It has a funny way of taking us to the deep places in our psyches.
There is a story I have always been fond of, about a seal woman who loses her sealskin. The story goes that a fisherman out every day on his morning march to work passes by a hidden enclave and every day spies a group of seals. The seals play and hunt on the rocky beach and in the salty sea. He watches entranced at their antics.
But coming home late in the golden hour right before the sun will set on the warmest days in that same hidden enclave he sometimes sees women on the beach, sunning themselves on large smooth boulders, laughing, their voices as clear and round as bells, carried on the wind. They splash, and play in the warm sun, while the golden waning light hits them just so.
On days like this he hides, and watches from the shadows. Each time staying later until one day he notices that as the sun sets the women grab something like a skin, slip into it, and disappear back into the inky water as seals. The women and their joy stir something deep within. He feels his own loneliness sharply watching them and begins to long for what they have.
The lonely fishermen hatches a plan. He waits for the next sunny day and hides himself early between some boulders. He waits for the seal women and when they take off their skins to play, he sneaks out and steals one. When it’s time to leave as the sun sinks below the horizon, one woman is left behind unable to follow the others without her skin.
The man makes a deal. He’ll give her the skin back after four years, if she’ll be his wife and keep him company for four years, he’s certain that will assuage his deep loneliness and he’ll be able to let her go.
The seal woman has no choice really, but she tries hard to do her duty. She makes his dinner, she tells him stories, she makes him laugh, she holds him when he’s sad, she’s happy to see him when he comes home. She tries, at least, but every month that passes she loses some of her radiant beauty, a little of her light and laughter fades.
A year passes and she stops laughing at all. Her hair breaks in ragged edges, and her skin has fine lines. Two years in and she stops even telling stories. She’s quiet as a mouse and she forgets things. Her hair is like straw and her lips and hands are chapped and rough, but she makes it through by counting off the months one by one until she’s free.
By the fourth year the seal woman is completely dried out. Her human skin cracks and bleeds whenever she moves, her hair has thinned and her hands ands lips are rough and dry as bones. Even her eyes bleed when she blinks. Still she makes it through by crossing off the days until finally the day has come.
But on the day he promised to free her the man refuses to give her back the skin. He begs her for just four more years. He’s still lonely, but if she stays with him for four more years he’s certain then he’ll be able to let her go.
You see, we need the salty, cold, and deep inky black sea in our lives, in order to not dry out. We need the bitter, the sorrow, the fear, and the mysterious dark unknown if we’re going to navigate life fully alive and be able to laugh and play. That’s what this story tells me.
It’s a strange paradox in life that to have one we also need the other. Without fear there is no risk, no exhilaration. Without sorrow there is strangely little to laugh about. Loss makes us keenly aware of the wonder of what endures. Pain and pleasure often commingle. And knowing despair, makes joy more powerful, not less.
We need the bitter to be able to fully taste the sweet. We need the watery dark ocean, to have the sunny beach. But to be able to navigate it we need to slip into our animal selves as easily as the seal women slips into her sealskin. It is our animal self the has the instincts to know how to dive or ride the ocean swells, when to play and when to hunt or look for cover. It’s our animal selves that know how to enjoy a sunny beach and stop working.
We’ve all somewhere along the line had our sealskin stolen, or brokered a bad deal that traded our freedom for the idea of happiness at a later date. We gave up our instincts and animal pleasures and promised to be our most civilized and domesticated selves.
It doesn’t matter what it was that became a theft, you will recognize it as a seal skin theft by how numb and dried out you feel. There is a strange quality of being both pleasureless and painless — of feeling nothing at all. No bitter, no sweet, and life becomes tasteless, boring and hard to swallow. You start to feel like you can’t get off the grind, or you keep promising yourself freedom on some future date. You lose your joie de vivre, your sparkle, and the wild unpredictable passions that make life worth living.
We tend to think of ourselves as separate from animals, and that our civilized and well-mannered selves, our social self is somehow better and more superior than the animal, but in truth the magic of human beings is that we need, and are made up of both, an instinctual animal self and a taught social self. We need both to navigate the world, and we need to be able to slip each self on and off as easily as a second skin, and not get stuck in either.
When we’re in touch with our animal selves, we don’t have to spend our time and energy trying to resist the bitter, or sorrowful or escape the scary things in life… We don’t spend our time numbing out, or tuning out. Instead we embrace it, the bitter, the sweet. We agree to give in to experiencing all the flavors and textures in life, the richness of it all because we instinctively know how to navigate it when we are our most natural and unfiltered selves.
In the end of the story they say the seal woman found the man’s hiding space and one night snuck off into the deep blue before he woke with her skin in tow. Which provides us with a big hint about how to get our own seal skins back.
We all have a gut feeling for the hiding places in our lives, the places where we’ve been keeping things, often feelings, from ourselves. The niggling doubt, the unease you quickly push away, the resentment you smother…. To get your sealskin back you simply have to have the courage to open that door and look — the rest will follow.