Tuesday, 12 January 2016

bittersweet

There may not be a consensus as to how many categories of taste a human being can differentiate—I understand that a new category was defined by scientists recently—but everyone will know what I’m talking about when I mention bitter, sweet and sour. Or will they? A surprising number of people appear to believe that sweet and sour are opposites. That one will cancel the effects of the other. Such people are clearly unaware that the Chinese demonstrated, centuries ago, that sweet and sour can coexist in the same dish, although you won’t know what I’m talking about if your only experience of gu lo yuk (sweet and sour pork) has been in the UK.

The real opposite to sweet is bitter, not only in taste but also in language—one is more often associated with positive outcomes, while the other has only negative connotations. We talk of the sweet spot on a tennis racquet or cricket bat, the spot that provides the maximum impact for the minimum of effort, but we fight to the bitter end—endings are never sweet. The ingestion of something sweet is most likely to elicit a smile, while the reaction to ingesting a bitter compound will probably be an involuntary grimace.

But are these natural reactions, or are they the result of acculturation? The notion that sweet is good and bitter is bad goes back at least as far as the Old Testament, as the following quotations demonstrate:
Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones.
Proverbs 16:24 (Authorized Version)
The full soul loatheth an honeycomb, but to the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet.
Proverbs 27:7 (Authorized Version)
Ironically, it is bitter compounds that are more likely to be beneficial to the human body, even though when we talk about a setback being a bitter pill to swallow, we are making a negative comment. In fact, the idea that medicine is intrinsically bitter is now so ingrained in popular culture that Mary Poppins could sing about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine to go down, and Max, aide de camp to the chief blue meanie in the movie Yellow Submarine, could say this to his boss:
Here Your Blueness, have some nasty medicine!
And His Blueness giggled as he slurped it down (blue meanies were contrarians who hated everything that humans found pleasurable, including music).

Yet two of the world’s most popular beverages, coffee and beer, are intrinsically bitter, and the key ingredient in tonic water is quinine, another bitter compound. On the other hand, it is now widely recognized that the consumption of large amounts of sucrose is injurious to health, with serious illnesses such as diabetes a likely result.

I see the bitter/sweet dichotomy as a kind of morality tale in which sweet is the easy option and bitter the hard road, after which ‘but few enquire’:
Don’t you see yon narrow, narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briars?
That is the road to righteousness,
Though after it but few enquire.

Don’t you see yon broad, broad road,
That lies across the lily leaven?
That is the road to wickedness,
Though some call it the road to heaven.

Thomas the Rhymer, traditional English folk song.
And what about the well-known oxymoron ‘bittersweet’, which is to my mind essentially meaningless? I suspect that people who use this word are reflecting some level of personal disappointment: they expected a positive outcome to a situation, but it turned out not to be as positive as they had hoped, or expected.

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