February 29, 2012
I had always fancied myself a food lover. Sure, there’s been food in the past that I haven’t liked. Olives, coconut flakes, veal, just to name a few. Why is cilantro the bane of my existence? Why do I sneer at it in the supermarket? Sitting there, all innocent-like next to the flat-leaf parsley. Always next to the parsley, the most similar looking ! Oooo you’re too good for the dried herb isle. Only fresh, right? What makes you so special? Maybe cilantro wouldn’t ignite this hatred if it were treated properly. How many restaurant menus have little chili peppers listed next to spicy options so little Suzie doesn’t burn her precious throat? What about peanuts? I certainly miss the days of tossing peanut shells on a bar floor. That satisfying crunch underfoot is positively delightful. I also understand that certain people break out into hives or look as though they were struck with the mumps at the mere glance of a nut. I’ve never heard of a death by cilantro, but if it’s so offensive to so many, why is there no warning for us?
I remember that fateful day 5 years ago. It was a sunny afternoon at my favorite taco shop, John’s tex-mex. I just received my beef burrito. My face glowing having watched John expertly assemble the fresh veggies, sharp cheese and slow simmered shredded beef. All of this was wrapped in the softest, yet durable, flour tortilla. So perfectly wrapped that only one hand was necessary for consumption, leaving the other free for beverages, napkins, and extravagant gestures. My day seemed too perfect at that point. Unbeknownst to me was a green monster waiting at my table. I sit down and take that first bite. Not the best bite because you need to break through the fist tortilla folds to get to the filling. By my third bite I was deep into the good stuff and loving every second of it. Pure joy. I watched as my friend squirted some green goo onto their burrito. Figuring it was jalapeño hot sauce, I immediately had to try it as not to come across a “puss”, as my companion affectingly harassed. My friend’s a real jerk. So I squirt a tiny amount and take a bite. It was herby at first. Not at all like hot sauce. Then a familiar flavor crept up. A flavor reminiscent of punishment doled out for saying “ass hat” in front of grandma at Easter dinner. I swallowed like a champ and pushed the bottle away. “You can keep you devil sauce, thanks. My burrito wants for nothing”, I say. As I continue on my lunch journey I notice the soapy flavor lingers. And lingers. It’s all I could taste, not just during lunch, but for the whole day! Brushing my teeth and rinsing with Listerine did little. Every time I burped, which is a lot, all I could taste was that cilantro. I went to bed, hoping for a better tomorrow.
Some time has gone by and usually I’m pretty good at knowing what to order “no cilantro”. My favorite Thai restaurant knows me only as “no cilantro lady”. It’s a little demeaning, yes, but better safe than sorry. My most recent experience with cilantro was while on vacation in Denver, co. My fiancé and I were visiting a few friends and really looking forward to our culinary experience there. A girlfriend of one of his buddies suggested this really authentic Vietnamese joint that boasts “Best Pho in Denver”. We all meet up there for lunch before our flight home. I ask the girlfriend “Hey, you’re Vietnamese, you eat here weekly, your family runs the place. Do I need to order this sans cilantro”. her exact response was “Nah, they don’t even use cilantro here”. Of course she was wrong. The entire soup was covered in cilantro. She half-heartedly apologized and went on slurping her soup, ignoring me as I tried to skim the finely minced herbs off the surface. Mind you, we had gone to the Great American Beer fest the night before and were extremely hung-over with a 5 hour flight ahead of us. My last meal in Denver was tainted and that’s something I can never get back.
If I were an activist, and I’m not, I would rally for cilantro to be advertised in menu items and products as a caution. There’s a whole group of people that are genetically predisposed to taste bitter soap and experience nausea because of the unsaturated aldahydes found in cilantro. That’s NPR talking, not me. If peanut and gluten warnings are advertised, so should unsaturated aldahydes.