When I am lost, I turn to my kitchen for answers. My own tiny island, stocked with the labour of a thousand hands: half the world’s wisdom within arm’s reach. Today I might rely on Italy for some empathy. Or perhaps I’ll abandon the all too familiar Mediterranean, to find some solace amid my spice cabinet. With heat I’ll drive the doubt away, as if my miseries are no more than a common cold.
It was in this room that I learnt a tongue is made for more than just tasting. It is a chart on which to plot emotions. An anchor which can ground restless minds. A powerful player in this, the most divisive of times. Alas, such a multitalented tool could never escape weaponization for long. Now I find my once hallowed flavours stripped of their meaning and stapled instead to an abundance of rickety and clichéd misconceptions.
I’ve been taught that defeat and disappointment taste bitter, like the coffee I have spent days, weeks, and months making, for other, more established people than myself. The social media mogul who likes his lattes extra hot, and the businesswoman who takes hers two at a time. I would do better - or so society tells me - to chase the sweeter things in life. After all, even a child could tell you that sugar is the taste of success. The dopamine associated with promotion, a large salary, and status could easily be defined as adulthood’s sugar rush. But, a part of me always argues, sweetness should not be confined to the addictive, sickly punch of refined carbohydrates alone. Nor must bitterness be overwhelming, a crushing defeat that ought to be swallowed only when absolutely necessary.
In this polarised present is their space to enjoy the middle ground? The delight that can be found in a Negroni’s lip-pursing pleasure or the subtle sweetness of a freshly caught King Prawn. Could I live a life that is built upon these in-betweens, have a career that remains undefined by the binary categorisation of ‘’good’’ or ‘’bad’’? Maybe this existence would be defined as a mix of the two. Bittersweet like the winces imparted by half a grapefruit. Bitter and Sweet, a formidable cocktail, one which seems all the more palatable when compared to the sickly, sugar-coated Instagram feeds, and arsenic laced generalisations that currently determine how we view each other’s lives.
It’s only when I see the look - pity mixed with a dash of empathy and a little disdain – and hear the unsolicited advice on how to ‘improve’ my situation that I realise how much we need a palate cleanser, a reset of all our workplace preconceptions. But if this miracle were attained, what would we do with the new-found clarity? My suggestion would be that instead of pursuing sweetness and fleeing from the bitter, we could try and find fulfilment, umami for the mind. Unfortunately, society’s predilection for a metaphor falls short here; unlike success and failure, there remains no Michelin-style guide describing this phenomenon, although I've heard it's a feeling to savour.
At least on a personal level I know where fulfilment isn’t going to be found. Amongst the unacknowledged emails for one, and the wholesale rejections for another. As to where it is going to be found, that is something me and my kitchen are still working on. I just hope that after the cupboards are ransacked, and the fridge stands empty, after all this time when the elusive flavour does happen to roll across my tongue, I am ready and willing to taste it.