March 22, 2012
About 20 years ago, when I was in my mid-20s, I encountered cilantro for the first time. After about a year of dating the woman to be, and still is, my wife, we were out and about, as young daters are prone to do. We got hungery, as often does occur. We decided to find a fast-food establishment, as is common among the young and hungery. "Ah," I said, "Taco Bell." She agrees which she so often does. I think you get the idea that there was nothing extraordinary about the day. No warning, no signs, no omens that I was about to be traumatized.
Well, there was one warning I didn't heed. The Taco Bell was ... questionable in its cleanliness, looked old or run down. This was a Taco Bell on its last legs (it did close, but took longer than I expected).
I order what was my usual then: two bean burritos and three chicken soft-tacos. The tacos had changed. A sign proclaimed in large letters: "Taco Bell Now Has Fiesta Sauce!" Wow, Fiesta Sauce! That sounded absolutely ... festive! The sign went on to list the items that NOW come with the Fiesta Sauce, including chicken soft tacos.
Unaware of the ingredients of Fiesta Sauce, I still order them. I probably would have anyway, not knowing what cilantro was.
We sat down with our food and I dug in. I chewed, made a face, chewed, made a worse face, and spat. Never done that before, but honestly I couldn't take it. I look up at the woman I hoped to marry and she was making a face, too. At me.
"It tastes like ..." I searched for a reference. My mind pulling up memories until one sticks: About ten years earlier, I worked in a Pizza Hut and, a little later, in a Chinese restaurant. At both establishments, my various duties included dish washing. On more than one occasion, I had scratched my upper lip with wet hands and, later, licked my lips when I felt soemthing wet (thought it was sweat). That was the flavor. Not just soap or detergent. No, the flavor was oily *and* soapy. It tasted like DIRTY DISHWATER.
To me, that meant someone had washed dishes then, with the dirty dishwater on their hands, made my tacos. I returned to the counter and the manager was very gracious and made new ones. I tried one. Same thing. I suggested they check their make table for a contanimated source. None. Then the manager asked, "Have you ever had a taco with Fiesta Sauce on it before." Nope. "Then maybe you should try the Fiesta Sauce by itself." OK. Sip. Nasty! That's it, there's soap in your Fiesta Sauce. "No," he said, "that's cilantro." Oh. "Would you like some tacos without Fiesta Sauce." Yes, thank you.
One of my talents is the ability to describe flavors or smells in terms that not only convey how my senses perceive that item, but also help others to experience it in a similar way. For example, I was eating at a local Lebonese restaurant and my wife couldn't figure out what their special version of stuffed grape leaves tasted like. I tried a bite and immediately told her, "That tastes like the smell of the paciderm pen at the zoo." Her eyes lit up. "Oh, you're right. Ugh." On another occasion, I described cilantro as dirty dishwater to the wife of an acquaintance; her eyes lit up, too. "That's it exactly! Thank you. Now I can explain why I don't like cilantro!" You're welcome.