Bittersweet

Of the two marmalades I made this weekend, the grapefruit was the more bitter. The clementine marmalade was lovely to the nose and succulent on the tongue, but the grapefruit felt good in my tummy — it was refreshing and cleansing.

In many cuisines around the world, bitterness is a valued and welcome flavor. There are biological reasons for this. It’s one of the four flavors sensed directly by the tongue (the others are sweet, sour and salty). It’s a warning of possible toxicity.

It also signals strong health-giving qualities, like lots of soluble fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. Foods like some gourds, squashes and melons, citruses, nuts, members of the nightshade family like brinjals and peppers, dark-leaved greens, sea-salt, teas, coffees, many herbs and spices, and the God’s food called chocolate, are all bitter.

We know — innately — that, when taken from the right source, bitterness is a good thing.


It was morning, and the bittersweet flavor of grapefruit marmalade was still in my mouth, when I came across an article by Edmund L. Andrews and Peter Baker in the NY Times about A.I.G. giving out bonuses.

The article reports that more than 10% almost 1% (sorry for the error!) — of the bailout money A.I.G. received will be used to pay bonuses — the numbers are $165 million in bonuses against a $170 billion bailout.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

Historically, we’ve been pretty OK about accepting the bitter along with the sweet. Have we now become addicted to a high-sugar, high-fat way of life? Is a little bitterness more than we can take, even when it’s good for us? If I’m worrying too much, maybe the A.I.G. bonus payout is a good reason to worry.

The argument Edward M. Liddy is making about A.I.G. paying out the bonuses is, “at least some bonuses were needed to keep the most skilled executives.” He also says, “We cannot attract and retain the best and the brightest talent to lead and staff the A.I.G. businesses — which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers — if employees believe their compensation is subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the U.S. Treasury.”

Oh, really? What about attracting the best and brightest capital investors? How can that happen if investors believe their investments’ value will be subject to continued and arbitrary adjustment by the poor decision-making of executives running A.I.G.?

Here’s what I think: Any exec at A.I.G. who’s contractually due a bonus should turn it down.

These men and women have had it extraordinarily sweet for a number of years. But now is a time that’s very bitter for many people around the world, through no fault of their own. A.I.G. execs should voluntarily swallow some of the bitterness they helped create. At the very worst, it would be a bittersweet thing for them to do.

By turning down the extra money, they would be increasing the value of the company they work for. Isn’t that part of their legal and fiduciary responsibilities? And lets not even get into the morals and ethics of the question.

These guys still have their jobs, after all, while lots of people in around the world have already lost theirs. It would be very sweet if they refused their bonuses. Well, sweet for us, anyway. OK, so giving up the extra money would be a little bitter and a little sweet for them — it would be bittersweet. That’s a very fine and healthy thing to be. It’s a good thing to risk, and it’s something to celebrate.


About bitterness and cooking:

Baking Chocolate: If you can find it, try a box of E. Guittard‘s 72% Bittersweet Chocolate Disks. This chocolate has a lovely rich nose that seems almost honeyed, despite being bittersweet, and the disks make measuring (do it by weight) and melting very easy.

Citrus Marmalades: When making marmalade, traditionally the fruits — either whole or just the peels and pith — are parboiled (sometimes in salt water) to “remove the bitterness” and to soften the tough rinds. This winter, I froze my fruits for marmalade, after first cutting them into eights, peels and all, and removing the seeds. Then I partially thawed the frozen fruit when I was ready to slice and cook it. The freezing and partial thawing made it easier to get very thin slices of fruit. It also tenderized the rinds. If you’re a fan of the bitter quality of a good marmalade, I recommend replacing parboiling with freezing and partial thawing. I tried blood orange, clementine, lime and grapefruit marmalades. Yum, especially if you like bittersweet.

Italian Grating Cheese: My favorite Italian grating cheese is Pecorino Romano, and if I can get it, the Locatelli brand because of its batch consistency. The more well-known grating cheese is true Parmasan (Parmigiano-Reggiano), a hard-aged, salted, part-skim, grass-or-hay-fed cows-milk cheese, with a flavor too round, for my taste, to stand up to the acidic sauces and bright-tasting vegetables that are typical of central and southern Italian regional cuisines. If you like these cuisines and are used to grated Parmesan as your regular table-side garnish for these cuisines’ dishes, you might be a bit shocked by your first taste of a Pecorino Romano. It’s a hard-aged, salted, full-fat sheeps-milk cheese. Sheep graze on a wider variety of plants than cows do, so it carries a hint of vegetal bitterness. This bitterness underscores, rather than mellows, the sometimes sharp nature of central and southern Italian cooking. A pasta with “red gravy”, or bitter greens and olive oil, that’s topped with a grated Romano, makes the palate sing. Pecorino Romano makes a wonderful pesto with when ground with olive oil, walnuts and spinach, too.

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