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The Benefit of Bitterness

How to create a small Sabbath to end each day.

It feels a little odd to reflect on sabbath rhythms at the moment. 

Even the word “rhythm” feels out of place; were I to use a musical term to describe these last three months, “drone” would feel just as accurate. It often feels like the same day over and over again, which causes a little ennui to creep in from time to time. And as for a sabbath, I don’t feel like I’ve experienced a typical one of those, either, since this all went down. Like most parents of young children, I’ve found myself working two jobs since mid-March: full time childcare, in addition to my regular day job, which I’ve had to learn how to do via Zoom, text message and phone. Some folks have been cultivating new hobbies or maximizing their productivity from the home office, but I’m more likely to flop down exhausted on the couch each evening in the lego-strewn living room, pulling errant clumps of Play-Doh from between my toes. Have I felt bitter about this state of affairs? Not every day, but I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that my mood can take on a grapefruit-rind character now and again. 

So I find myself longing for a respite, to think grown up thoughts, to do grown up things. And despite our tendency to equate “grown up” with “work,” “career” and “upward mobility,” I think there’s something wonderfully mature, accomplished, sagacious, even, about cultivating rituals of leisure.

Bracing

Italians know this, and they’ve installed a mini-sabbath ritual known as an aperitivo at the end of the work day, in anticipation of dinner, right as late afternoon’s harsh sunlight bends down to evening’s golden hour. And in this lovely quotidian sabbatical, bitterness isn’t a bug, but a feature. An aperitivo is often composed of a light snack accompanied by a cocktail that features bracingly bitter liqueurs: Aperol, Fernet Branca, Cynar, Averna Amaro, among others. 

The most familiar among the bitters, I’d say, is Campari, a Milanese concoction flavoured with gentian root, and the colour carmine in liquid form. If, like yours truly, you’re yearning to reclaim that grown-up feeling, or you’d just like to feel a bit continental after all is said and done (when all is finally said and finally done), then I commend it to you.

There are numerous ways you can press Campari into service during your own socially-distanced aperitivo hour. It’s hard to beat the Negroni cocktail – first mixed in Florence a century ago on the request of Count Camillo Negroni. Like good theology, it’s built around a seamless integration of three-in-one: one ounce Campari, one ounce gin, one ounce sweet vermouth. Pour these three over ice in a rocks glass, stir, and drop in a demilune of an orange slice, thick as your little finger. If anything so succinctly captured the essence of the word bittersweet, it’d be this.

Maybe you don’t care for gin, or maybe a Negroni looks a little too high-octane for your taste. Try this instead: find a big wine glass and load it with ice cubes (you’ll want five or six). Pour in two ounces of Campari, and two ounces of dry white wine, and give it a gentle stir. Garnish it with some thin slices of lemons or oranges, and top it off with an ounce or two of chilled club soda. You’ve just made a Bicicletta. I’m no linguist, but I’m pretty sure that’s Italian for bicycle, and it’ll surely restore you, like an unhurried, breezy pedal down a quiet cobblestone lane. 

There’s something wonderfully counterintuitive and ironic about a small sabbath based around something so bitter. We may expect more accessible flavour profiles when we’re off the clock – the treacly sweet, the sumptuous and savoury. But the bitterness is there on purpose – it has a way of stimulating the appetite, of opening the palate, of stirring desire for the richness of the main course that awaits. I suppose every true sabbath in this vale of bitter tears does the same, pointing beyond itself to the true feast, the true rest that is yet to come. Andrà tutto bene! (Everything will be fine).

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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