I took up making bitters a couple of years ago, in the thick of writing my dissertation—a perfect hobby to balance the stress of too much head usage. I especially enjoyed branding my “pretend” business, playing around with the graphics, and, of course, the name. My mother, also named Mary, once told me that “Mary” means “bitter,” reflecting the Madonna’s bitter tears of grief when she lost her son. If you do some research, this is not the only meaning you will find, but it is one of them.
I’m just now remembering something else my mother once told me. My first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, and I was overwhelmed with grief. It was staggering, how very much I adored that little one who was with me for such a short time!
Howling through my tears, I appealed to my mother: “Why does it hurt so much?” This was her response:
“I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it’s a blessing to be able to care so much and feel so deeply. Not everyone has that.”
It’s simply true that loss and pain are a part of loving. Though we don’t seek to suffer, yet suffering burnishes the richness of what we love and cherish into high relief. Just as shadows bring definition to light, extending the dynamic range of our feelings allows us to cherish life all the more. A touch of bitterness makes the sweetness all the more delicious.
Bitters are used medicinally as digestive aids, providing relief from overindulgence. In the culinary world, they bring nuance and complexity to cocktails and foods. Just a few drops will open up and marry the flavors with the subtle addition of something indescribable. The tastes we love become all the more so in the presence of bitters.
Just a little bit will do. Mark Bitterman notes in his “Field Guide to Bitters and Amari” that bitter-tasting foods are often toxic. Too much can kill you. But just a taste can cure what ails you.
I recently came across this quote from inspirational speaker Nick Vujicic: “I never met a bitter person who was thankful. Or a thankful person who was bitter.” Huh! I thought. Well, he’s never met me.
Peaks rise out of valleys, joys out of sorrows, pleasure from pain, and (my tagline), “a little bit bitter is quite bit better.