Jennifer McLagan’s Bitter (HarperCollins Canada) is not a cookbook: it’s a book with recipes. The James Beard Award winner has written the book on bitterness that, more than anything, is a well-researched, vigorously written, sharply defined ode to flavour.
McLagan herself is keen and insightful, as curious as she is informative. Her enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and it’s clear she spent years doggedly researching the subject.
Here are five things she taught me during our interview about Bitter:
1. Contrary to Thesaurus.com, bitter doesn’t actually mean sour. Acids are the only things that cause sourness, while many others can work together to cause bitterness.
2. Bitter registers on our taste buds as a threat. We respond by spitting bitter things out because our taste buds think we’re being poisoned (Babies are extra-sensitive because they can be more quickly affected by small amounts of toxins.) There’s another reason, too: as we age we lose taste buds, which essentially translates to less bitter transmitters.
3. Speaking of taste buds, we have them in places you might not expect. “We have taste buds not just on our tongue but on the back of our throat,” says McLagan. That’s not all. “Receptors for bitterness: guys have them in their testicles. Why are they there? And what are they doing? And why is bitterness so important to the human body?”
4. While researching the book, McLagan became incredibly interested with how all of our senses work to elicit a bitterness response. For example, sights and smells can help evoke the flavour. “People can be tricked – their palate, their sense of smell, and their taste buds – by colour,” she says. “I found that really fascinating, that colour can trick you into thinking you’re eating something that you’re not.”
McLagan cites Charles Spence, a professor at Oxford University who worked with Heston Blumenthal on sensory perception experiments, as someone whose work piqued her interest. “Pretty much all of those things that I wrote in there about tasting and hearing and listening to music, that I found, all of that sensory perception stuff, I knew little about that, but then I started reading a lot of Charles Spence,” she says. “The subtle ways that you think you’re kind of being objective when you’re tasting everything, but that it goes back to your genes and way back to how you were brought up … and then to all of these extraneous influences from sound, to what you see, to colour and everything else.”
5. But even with all of the exciting facets of bitterness, it is still an elusive flavour that is hard to pin down. “People think ‘bitter’ and they think something that they want to spit out of their mouth,” says McLagan. “But it’s harder to define. All of us probably agree what’s sour, and what’s sweet, and what’s salty, right? But I’ll say something is bitter and someone else won’t find it bitter at all and vice-versa.”
A feature profile on Jennifer McLagan appears in the October issue of Q&Q.