I’m in the fifth grade, and my science teacher is giving a demonstration to teach us about gene expression. He passes out a small paper strip to each student and keeps one for himself. Your genes, he explains, determine what the paper tastes like to you, and everybody experiences it a little bit differently. He sticks the paper to his tongue, smiles impishly, and says it tastes like strawberry sherbet.
Go ahead and try it, he tells us. All around me, my classmates hesitantly lick the paper or put the whole strip in their mouth. About a third of them look confused and stare at the strips, wondering if theirs were faulty. Most of the rest make faces and spit the paper out, and they’re no worse for the wear. A couple classmates and I can’t help but gag at the overwhelming taste.
The strip does not taste like strawberry sherbet. It’s bitter. Extremely bitter.
Those students who only tasted paper are nontasters, my teacher explains as I try desperately to get the taste out my mouth, drooling and pawing at my tongue. Those who tasted mild bitterness are medium tasters. The few of us who experienced unbearable bitterness are supertasters
It’s an adaptation, he continues. Being sensitive to bitterness protected our ancestors from eating poisonous plants. Most people are genetically predisposed to taste some level of bitterness, but we lucky few who inherited the right combination of alleles have a gene on constant alert, making mountains out of molehills.
It doesn’t feel like an adaptation, in a Starbucks and craft brew world.
Eat your brussels sprouts, my mother tells me.
I don’t like them, I say. They’re too bitter.
They’re good for you, she says.
They’re too bitter.
You can’t leave the table, she says, until you eat them.
A precedent is set.
My brother, like me, is a supertaster. Unlike me, he doesn’t shy away from alcohol.
But it’s gross, I complain. It all just tastes like rubbing alcohol. Nothing but bitterness and burning in my sinuses.
He only shrugs and says, but it’s what everyone else does.
They say children are more sensitive to bitterness than adults are, and that they eventually grow out of it. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly snippy, I wonder if perhaps they don’t grow out of it, but instead simply find the self-discipline to resign themselves to the bitterness.
We market bitterness as a marker of adulthood: the morning coffee, the after-work IPA, the lover’s gift of dark chocolate. Set aside such childish things as sweetness and grow up. Eat your vegetables. Have a beer. Stop being such a baby.
We don’t value the bitterness. We value the capacity to endure it, to enjoy everything else that comes with it. The boost. The buzz. The benefits.
And when I find myself brooding about it, I know the bitterness has seeped into me, too.
I am the only one at the wedding reception without a drink in hand. A cousin notices and brings me a beer.
No thanks, I tell him, I don’t like alcohol.
Everybody likes alcohol, he laughs. You just haven’t tried the right drink yet!
I watch, helpless, as he goes and gets me a mixed drink at the bar.
No, really, I say, I’m a supertaster. It’s a genetic thing. It all tastes gross to me.
It’s true, my brother confirms, gesturing with his beer. We’re both supertasters.
Come on, just try it, my cousin urges. He hands me a vodka and coke and laughs when I smell it and wince. It’s not wine, he says. Just drink it.
I take a sip. It’s disgusting. My cousin isn’t deterred. Slowly, a crowd of extended family gathers and everyone brings me different drinks from the bar. I want them to stop, but none of them listen. The drinks keep coming, and I keep pushing them aside, and everybody is certain that the next drink will be the one I love until I manage to slip away to the bathroom where it’s quiet and I’m alone.
There is a graveyard of six-minus-one-packs on my kitchen table. I’m not an unadventurous eater; now and then I see a new beer that looks interesting and buy it on impulse. Hints of lemon, they advertise. Pumpkin wheat. Crisp notes of lime, undertones of cinnamon.
All I ever taste are the hops, but I still tell myself I at least have to try.
Intellectually, I know that my sensitivity to bitterness is genetic. It’s written into the fiber of my being. Brown eyes, widow’s peak, lactose intolerant, supertaster. Nobody thinks my eyes will turn blue if I just stare at the sky long enough. Nobody thinks I’ll magically stop getting sick if only I eat more mozzarella. There is no reason to expect I will ever grow out of my dislike of bitterness. The sentiment that tastes mature with age, however, is pervasive. Maybe this time I’ll finally have the epiphany that seemed to strike everyone else when they were half my age, sneaking their dads’ beers from the fridge at one in the morning.
It hasn’t happened yet. I still keep trying.
I bake bread with the orphaned beer, and I give it away.
I stop telling people I’m a supertaster. Nobody knows what that is. When I try to explain, they laugh. That’s so fake, they say, even while I pull up articles on my phone.
Instead, I deflect. Thanks, I’m just not in the mood. Naw, I’m good. Sorry, my shift starts early tomorrow, I better not. Maybe next time. A few times, when people are insistent, I contemplate telling them I’m a recovering alcoholic. It’s easier for them to accept somebody avoiding a life-ruining addiction than a mere dislike or disinterest.
In many ways, life gets easier. Nobody wants to know why I don’t beeline for the beer cooler. They only want to know that I’m just like them. I want to know that I’m just like them, too. I’m tired.
I am on an underwhelming date in a local pub. He has ordered a flight of house beers. I am drinking a cola.
I barely know the man. My friends convinced me to come. It’s just a couple drinks to get to know the guy, they say, it’s not a huge deal.
I don’t know how to tell them it’s never really just a couple drinks, and how I can taste the bitterness just knowing the beer is coming. I tell them I don’t like beer, and one of my friends replies, maybe he doesn’t drink very often either, and it’s clear they can’t understand the difference between appetite and taste.
Try this, it’s great, my date says, handing a glass to me from the tray. I don’t ask what it is. I just hope that maybe this one won’t be so bitter, or if it is, that I will find it in myself to enjoy it.
The date ends at last. I don’t resist when he leans in and kisses me. It’s less exhausting to just let it happen. I do not find joy in the bitterness when he places another kiss on my neck.
He texts me. I don’t text back.
I’m in bed with my boyfriend. We’ve been dating for a few weeks, but we’ve never even made out. He’s been respectful. I’m comfortable with him.
I was comfortable with him.
Want to suck it? he asks.
Come on, he cajoles.
I’m not in the mood, I tell him.
But I want you to, he says, and for the first time I am truly aware that he’s a foot taller than I am, and stronger, and he’s between me and the door. I am literally backed into a corner, wedged against the headboard and a wall.
I need to pee, I say.
Come on, he repeats.
I need to pee.
I am shaking as I dart for the foot of the bed, vault over his legs, and close myself in the bathroom. I swallow reflexively against the acrid dryness of my tongue. I stay there for ten minutes, trying to remember if I had ever actually told him I’m a supertaster or if I’d only ever deflected when it came up, knowing that it didn’t even matter, because I’d said no, and he kept pushing. And that's when a small and unpleasant voice in my head chimes in uninvited, and says: but nothing even happened, so there's nothing you can do.
It's not the first time the voice has told me this. It's not the last time. The voice has been my companion through many near-misses, and leagues of murky waters. When your sensitivity is set to a hair trigger, is it fair to call a foul?
It compounds the strange and uneasy guilt I feel. All my life, I have seen adults push past bitterness for the sweetness of the rest of the package. We do things we don't like every day, for the right price. I don’t want to suck it, but I still want the tender looks, the sweet touches, and the intimate conversations in the dark. How bitter is too bitter? How much sweetness will it take to offset it?
Children complain, that horrible little voice in my head tells me. Adults compromise. Stop being a baby and grow up.
I continue dating him for another month. We never speak of what happened. It’s only when I tell him I have depression and he asks why I don’t just try being happy instead that I leave him.
On days when I obsess over gene expression, I am convinced that there have to be people for whom bitterness is not intrinsically linked to kneejerk disgust. There have to be people who aren’t trying to look past the bitterness for a sweet reward but appreciate the bitterness itself. Sixty thousand acres of American hops don’t lie. That many people can’t be masochists. There must be something of value there, beyond my comprehension.
I want to believe it – that somewhere out there are people who will happily reach for the glass that’s all bitter frothy head, weak and burnt, without the benefit of a warm, welcoming body to make it attractive to the masses.
It’s a novel thought, and one I cling to.