Flash in the Pan 

The bitterness belongs

The bright glow of dandelions emerging in springtime is an important seasonal milestone for many creatures. For bees, the golden flowers are an important source of early season nourishment from pollen and nectar. For lawn keepers, the return of those persistent weeds marks the beginning of another frustrating summer.

While it can be a stubborn adversary, a dandelion can be valuable friend as well, and not just to the bees. Humans use every part of the plant, making wine from the petals, tea from the root and salad and juice from the leaves. Each section of the plant has a different set of nutrients and compounds with demonstrated properties like antioxidant, antibiotic and even anti-carcinogenic activity. But despite their health perks and sweet smiles, dandelions are so bitter that few people will touch them.

The bitterness issue isn't exclusive to would-be dandelion eaters. Many of the most nutritious plant foods we eat are also the most bitter.

Bitterness, like sweetness, is a taste that multiple substances can trigger. This is in stark contrast to the other three basic tastes: salt, umami and sour, each of which is triggered by a specific agent—sodium chloride, glutamate, and acid, respectively.

Bitter is the only basic taste the purpose of which is to help us avoid eating things. While the other four tastes can all make food more delicious, adding something bitter to the mix rarely does. Bitter things can be made to taste better by adding other basic tastes. Chocolate combines bitter with sugar and kimchi mixes bitter with salt and sour.

The consensus explanation for the unique culinary properties of bitter is that the ability to detect it evolved as a way of avoiding poisonous plants. Most toxic plant compounds are bitter-flavored.

These compounds are not toxic by accident, but as part of the plant's survival strategy, manufactured as a defense against hungry bugs and animals. And many of these toxins are the very same chemicals that are also beneficial to humans in the plants we eat. As the saying goes, the dose makes the poison, and the same goes for a substance's medicinal qualities.

The medicinal value of bitter things is hardly old news. Many of the bitters commonly used in mixed drinks were once used as medicine. Cultures around the world have similar traditions of foraging for greens, dandelions included, in springtime, bitter as they may be. Spring greens were thought to be a tonic, helping the body cleanse and recharge its micronutrient levels after the long winter with a plant-free diet.

Before agriculture, when virtually all of the plants our ancestors ate were wild, humans had to deal with dietary bitterness on a daily basis. And perhaps it did their bodies good.

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

But as we began cultivating wild plants and selecting for the traits they desired, bitterness was given the boot, writes Jo Robinson in Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health: "Early farmers favored plants that were relatively low in fiber and high in sugar, starch and oil."

Along with bitter flavor, deep pigmentation is also a telltale sign of nutrient-density. "The most nutritious greens in the supermarket are not green at all but red, purple, or reddish brown. These particular hues come from phytonutrients called anthocyanins," Robinson writes, "powerful antioxidants that show great promise in fighting cancer, lowering blood pressure, slowing age-related memory loss, and even reducing the negative effects of eating high-sugar and high-fat foods."

Not all people perceive bitter the same way. In 2006 a gene was discovered, its existence having been suspected since the 1930s, that codes for a taste bud which makes carriers more sensitive to certain bitter compounds. One such trigger is glucosinolate, found in members of the cabbage family like Brussels sprouts and broccoli, but not in the chicory family of bitter greens, which includes escarole, endive, radicchio and dandelions.

Those sensitive to bitter have a higher body mass index, according to one study, suggesting that their sensitivity to bitterness tilts their diets toward sweet things, rather than veggies. Another study found that those who taste less bitterness are more likely to be beer drinkers.

Irrespective of one's preferences in alcoholic beverages, a little booze will make the bitter go down easier. I'm no mixologist, but the long history of bitters in mixed drinks makes me wonder what would happen if one were to pour a shot of dandelion-leaf juice into a Bloody Mary, which normally contains Angostura bitters, along with other bitter donors like celery and olives. Indeed, part of the bloody magic is how the drink combines bitterness with every other basic taste: including sweet, sour, umami and salt.

The blog Disco Ginferno presents a Dandelion Black Jack recipe in which roasted dandelion root is used as a substitute for coffee, with a dandelion flower garnish. Meanwhile, a beautiful gin and tonic-like cocktail, Impending Bloom, was created by Chicago bartender Sean Patrick Riley. It makes use of Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Dandelion & Burdock Bitters, the website for which states that dandelion and burdock bitters were created in the 1300s by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Dandelion wine has a poetic ring to it, and I love Ray Bradbury's book by the same name (which has absolutely nothing to do with dandelion wine). But in my experience, dandelion wine generally tastes like any other homemade wine. Not very good, in other words. And it's painstaking to make, as you need a bunch of dandelion flower petals.

These petals do make the liquid look pretty, but I'm happy looking at a field of dandelion flowers, preferably buzzing with bees. And I'm happy chopping some dandelion greens into my salad, or my stir-fry. And when I drink my dandelion, it's usually juiced, along with carrot, ginger and apple. The bitterness remains, but balanced with the sweet apple and carrot, and spicy ginger, the bitterness also belongs.

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