I used to hate bitter things. I literally could not stand the taste of them. I could barely even handle the taste of coffee and proceeded to drown my black brews in tons of cream and sugar for the majority of my teens and through my university years. I had friends who loved the taste of black coffee and would look at them in awe (actually, more like disgust) as they downed their bitter beverages. Fast forward a few years and boy how things have changed…
I wanted to use my little coffee anecdote to talk about bitter foods and our taste buds because these two things have played a major role in the kinds of crops we farm today and the way we’ve altered plant growth over hundreds of years. In Jo Robinson’s amazing book, “Eating on the Wild Side” she explores the way we transformed ourselves and the food we grow as we transitioned from hunter/gatherers to farmers to consumers. As hunter-gatherers, our ancestors had to move around constantly in search of food that was seasonally harvestable and packed with nutrients. As they developed and honed their farming skills, it became possible to settle down in one spot for longer or even permanent stretches of time. However, this ability to settle down also brought with it some tough choices – namely, which crops were they going to bring with them?
Funnily enough, they chose plants that were low in bitterness and astringency but unfortunately also low in nutrients. Archeological work has shown that some of the first choices made were the sweetest fruits – dates and figs, followed closely by grain. Although hunter-gatherers only ate small amounts of grain, it quickly became the easiest thing to grow an abundance of and thus allowed them to settle down as farmers. Plants that were favored were high in sugar (figs and dates), oil (olives and avocados), and starch (potatoes, corn, millet, wheat, and barley) while plants that were left behind were tough and bitter or too seedy. These choice made some 400 generations ago have continued to affect the way we farm crops and the flavors we favor. Over these generations we have processed and refined these original wild plants into domesticated, palatable crops that are easiest for us to eat. Unfortunately, many of the most beneficial nutrients contained in plants have a slightly bitter or acidic taste. Meaning, as we’ve farmed and ‘perfected’ crops for our taste buds we’ve slowly groomed the nutrients right out of our food.
In a way, our taste buds are no buds to us at all when it comes to tasting nutrients (I shouldn’t be allowed to make jokes.) because when it comes to bitterness, mine certainly betray me. Although we cannot get all of these plants we’ve lost back, we can learn to choose the plants that are highest in nutrients and how to maximize these in storage and preparation. Eating healthy doesn’t mean having to eat things that taste bad to us or solely eating bitter plants but its important to find ways to work dark, leafy and bitter greens into our diets in new and creative ways. I’ve learned to love sautéed bitter greens with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of salt and for now, that’s good enough for me. Try to remain open minded when it comes to vegetables that at first sight (or taste) are not the most appetizing and experiment with them and flavors you DO like until you find a way to get those age-old nutrients into your body!