It's late, cold, and damp. My eyes are raw and stinging, my is train delayed, I'm tired, and—I'll be honest—I feel a bit weepy. Around me drunken revelers pass by. To my chest I clutch tightly a beautiful wrapped box inside of which sit two tiny antique dark glass vials. They are filled with my own tears.
For the last two hours, I stood in a dark room, dressed all in black, creating alcoholic bitters infused with my own tears. Bitter Tears is a new workshop hosted by Bompas & Parr as part of their season of 'Alcoholic Architecture', held at the newly opened British Museum of Food in London. Here we will discover both the history of botanical bitters the tincture, bitterness the flavour, and the very emotion of bitterness itself.
Over the course of the evening we will create two bottles of our own bitters, created not just from herbal infusions, but with the final addition of our own tears. As the host tells me, we are here to create the ultimate present: "The gift of you."
In case you're wondering, bitters is the herbal infusion splashed into cocktails to give it a kick. Think Manhattans or Old Fashioneds. The tatty bottle labelled "Angostura" and the four mysterious drops added as if a poison? Those are the botanical bitters. It was originally intended to a medicinal tonic to aid digestion and wellbeing, with a splash of alcohol to help it go down. At some point in history, this original intention was forgotten as patients helped themselves to just one more for the road. But tonight we return to the roots of infusion as a tonic for the soul.
So here I am. Standing in a room lit by white candles; before me, overflowing cups of spiced roots and barks. The host, Iska Lupton, is beautiful and very tall. She is draped all in black, her long arms gesticulating wildly as she talks. She starts recounting the story of bitterness, and tears.
Bitterness has a long and dark cultural history. Its associations are predominately negative. Even in nature it comes with a warning. Our taste buds are most sensitive to bitterness (as opposed to other basic tastes like salty or sour). We have this sensitivity because bitterness in nature most frequently denotes poison.
It is a reference which creeps into psychology. Bitterness is not one of the classic six "basic emotions" as defined by pioneering American psychologist Paul Ekman: surprise, disgust, happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. Instead, it is a mixture and component of all but happiness. He sees it as the foundation of hatred.
In the English lexicon it has become synonymous with anger and spite. It is also seen by psychologists as incredibly dangerous and intensely damaging. To heal, you must turn bitterness from internal to external, and one way to aid this is to cry.
There are three types of tears: Basal tears which we cry almost continually to lubricate our eyeballs; reflex tears, produced due to irritants such as dust, and finally emotional tears, their rhyme and reason still partly unknown. These I'm told are the "holy grail" of tears.
I'm not a girl who cries easily, but tonight I'm determined. I will cry, if possible with emotion, and then bottle the results. Lachrymatory (tear) bottles first appear in Psalm 56:8 when David prays to God, "Thou tellest my wanderings, put thou tears in bottles." Legend has it that during the American Civil War, women would bottle their tears to send to loved ones. But cocktail tears—this could be a first.
When the talk comes to a close, I'm handed a pipette, a test tube, and two beautiful antique glass bottles. I look around me and see ten women and two men. The men look willing but respectful, as if they have accidentally gatecrashed a coven's drinks party. I have 50 minutes to weep.
In order to "facilitate tears," Bompas & Parr have arranged a series of 'experiences' to help us. My first experience is to sit under a black cloth listening to music. I am told they are tracks chosen by the organizers to be played at their funerals. I pick out Nirvana, Radiohead, and some sort of string quartet. Depressing, gothic, and indulgent. I nod approvingly—but no tears.
I move on to experience two: the sensory room. I enter a cubicle where chocolate drops are laid out. The instructions are to take one and concentrate on the flavour. I take five, and then five more. My mind wanders. I drift onto the 'butterfly room' and look up. Butterflies flutter around. I try to think of the fragility of life… Nope, though it is rather warm in here and I am starting to sweat. I hurry out, conscious of time and becoming slightly paranoid about my obvious lack of emotional accessibility.
Now armed with a strong cocktail, I take a moment to sneak a look at the other's progress. I am surrounded by beautiful women armed with pipettes. I bet they all cry beautifully. With my cold, I find myself hoping that I'm not the ugly, snotty crier of the group.
Why we cry—I mean actually physically—has long been debated. As a social signal, as a calming effect, we just don't know. The earliest reference to crying, according to the literary critic Tom Lutz, comes from Canaanite tablets dating back to the fourteenth century BC. They describe the virgin goddess Anat, sister of the earth god Ba'al, weeping at his death. She "continued sating herself with weeping, to drink tears like wine." This bodes well for the plans I have for my tears. Out of bitterness I hope will come pleasure—or at least a good drink.
One problem: I still haven't cried. Lupton suggests I start to make the base of my bitter anyway. I go for a heavy grapefruit base and add genetian flower, cardamom, caraway, and a lot of clove.
Time's nearly up. One last ingredient. I move to the 'emergency' table. I pick up the knife before me and plunge it into a perfectly round onion. I inhale deeply and in the spirit of adventure waft the juices at my face. I peel the thin membrane away from an inner section and rub my eyes. They explode in pain and tears overflow. A huge, triumphant grin cracks across my face. I quickly try and think of sad thoughts: a small kitten lost on a highway, the political state of the world today, global warming, and the fact I never won a single prize at school.
To be honest, though, I feel rather merry. I pipette the tears off my face and squeeze them into my bottles at the eleventh hour. And with that we are pushed back onto the damp, cold, and badly lit London street and back out into the night.
Five days later, after my loved one got over the gross factor of the "gift of me", I finally got the chance to make a round of Old Fashioneds. Did it taste good? Well, I make a mean cocktail so it wasn't awful. But he did point out it had a rather clawing, stringent aftertaste. Well, he'll miss me when I'm gone.