“…with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it.” Exodus 12:8
Mustard greens are being genetically ‘edited’ to remove their bitterness. This is supposed to be good news. Many of the most nutritious greens or herbs are bitter to the taste. By nature. Yet if we can delete the bitterness and keep the nutrition this might seem an improvement on nature.
This calls for serious consideration, and as such can occasion new insight into the realm of eating, as well as the challenges of our day. One angle is the state of the food industry, the science behind it, and the regulation of food marketing. I have read that genetic ‘editing,’ unlike genetic ‘modification,’ does not require labelling. This is an issue that calls for attention. But it is not here my focus.
A basic disposition of the wise is to be docile to the order of nature, which requires humility and subtlety to see clearly, and courage and discipline then to act rightly. This is not easy, since what the order of nature calls for is not always immediately evident. Part of the plan is that we will have to work at both discovering the plan and doing it.
I think a strong case can be made there is a good reason some foods are bitter, and simply to remove that bitterness is misguided—and this apart from the issue of possible adverse effects of genetic editing. Sure, sweet foods are generally more appealing. But what if we only eat sweet foods? Would sweetness itself be perceived and appreciated in the same way? Is it an accident that while naturally sweet foods can have many nutrients, there are many other nutrients that tend to come only in non-sweet packages?
One of the proverbial challenges of parenting is forming good habits of eating in children. A central aspect has always been that we must be willing and indeed accustom ourselves to eating not-so-appealing foods—or in any case, foods that are not appealing to the unformed palate. This much seems clear from my own experience: if we do not ‘push through’ in eating certain foods we will never discover the hidden richness of their flavor, and perhaps too their health benefits. This can be a great life lesson.
I question whether mustard greens and other such natural foods should be judged objectively ‘unappealing’ and worthy of ‘editing’ at all. Perhaps after two generations raised on breakfast cereals, snack foods, and other foods aggressively marketed on their immediate sense appeal, we now have less refined and so less trustworthy tastes. Imagine then turning our gaze on the world of food plants (and animals) and starting to remake them according to these tastes.
I offer a simple appeal in defense of the ordinary and the natural, beginning in our daily eating habits. As surely as many things we don’t feel like doing have their place in life, bitter foods have their place in our diet. And the best way to discover that place is to begin by eating them.
There is much room for creativity in the culinary arts. Food preparation, as all arts of the household, takes on its particular richness precisely from the natural things with which it works. The astounding diversity of edible plants and animals grounds the joys of cooking and eating. But then there is more. We discover profound connections between eating and the whole of human life, and thus how eating well–in several senses–is not just preparation for but also part and parcel of living a good life.
Making bitter herbs part of our eating practices—and when possible also our gardening practices (many are actually quite easy to grow)—might be a gift it is time to rediscover.
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