Friday, April 16, 2010

It's Soap to Me: Cilantrophobia

My alert buddy Some Assembly Required pointed me toward an article about cilantro in the New York Times, in which Harold McGee explains why the green herb tastes powerfully like soap to some of us, including my husband and me.

But my favorite part of the article is not the explanation but this bit about Julia Child:
Culinary sophistication is no guarantee of immunity from cilantrophobia. In a television interview in 2002, Larry King asked Julia Child which foods she hated. She responded: “Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs, they have kind of a dead taste to me.”
“So you would never order it?” Mr. King asked.
“Never,” she responded. “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”
I look forward to throwing the cilantro on the floor the next time I encounter it, before explaining that it's what Julia would have done in my place. And I'm far from alone. Here are some descriptions of the taste of cilantro by people commenting on the article:
Old dirty gym socks  •  RightGuard  •  body odor  •  the intake side of a sewage treatment plant  •  horrible, soapy pennies  •  Dawn dishwashing liquid and tin  •  Stink bugs in Southwestern Pennsylvania  •  blood  •  The stuff I'd been spraying on the sofa to keep the cats from using it as a scratching post  •  licking a battery terminal 
And my personal favorite:
The smell of a mildewed canvas deck chair combined with the flavor of an old window screen.
Yes, that's it, but it would need to be a soapy window screen. About a year ago, we attended a small dinner party thrown by a colleague of my husband's that featured multiple bouquets of fresh cilantro in more than one dish. I was overcome by the smell as soon as we entered their apartment — even from a distance, cilantro gives me that "I'm drinking dishwashing liquid" taste. 

Our hosts had no idea that many people find cilantro repulsive. Thanks to this article, I can now explain if they ever invite us again (doubtful): cilantro contains aldehydes, molecules that resemble those found in soaps (and certain insects). While people in some countries grow up eating lots of cilantro and find it pleasant, others, who encounter it rarely, get brain signals that it's poison. We taste soap (or bed bugs, presuming we know what they taste like). And try to discreetly spit it on the floor. 

We muddled through that cilantroid meal as best we could, but it was a strange, soapy evening. I didn't know enough about Julia Child and her food-throwing techniques at the time. Luckily, there was cheese for an appetizer.

According to the article, deliberately eating lots of cilantro might eventually help us neutralize the soapy taste; we might even learn to enjoy it. I can't imagine attempting that. The author recommends starting with cilantro pesto. I bet it tastes like exfolating scrub. For me, all it takes is one teeny-tiny shred of the herb — the size of this "0" — accidentally wandering out of the salsa container and into my Anna's burrito to soapify the remainder of the meal. It's ruined more than one burrito for me. So, thanks but no thanks for that tip, Harold McGee. If I want to go through that, I've got a bottle of Nexxus coconut shampoo that smells more appetizing.

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