I thought it would go away.
I thought if I waited long enough -- survived the '80s, lasted through the early '90s -- I would outlast it. But now I must admit the truth. Cilantro has won.
You know cilantro. The leafy thing floating in your lemon grass soup. The chopped greenness in your salsa. The yuppie herb appearing on so many pretentious menus (as in "... served with a delicate melange of cilantro and mango chutney"). The serrated sprig that tries to sneak past you by looking like Italian parsley but which can never truly hide.
You know cilantro. That thing with the most disgusting flavor on Earth.
Or maybe you disagree. Perhaps you fall on the other side of the Great Cilantro Chasm, the gulf that divides parent from child, friend from friend, me from my husband.
For more than a decade I have worked to understand, telling myself that one day soon those benighted fools who like cilantro will snap fitfully awake and be horrified, like the subjects of a cruel hypnotist who suddenly find themselves munching some appalling substance -- linoleum, Sterno, maggots -- that they have been gulled into thinking was ambrosia.
While ethnic foods spread through the nation, altering habits and tastes, I waited. While Vietnamese and Thai restaurants -- havens for cilantro -- became as common as McDonald's, while salsa edged out ketchup as our national condiment of choice, I waited.
I ate the Thai food. I ate Vietnamese. I ate Mexican. I enjoyed them all, but with every new dish I was leaping into the sensory unknown. As I took the first bite I would think -- Yes? No? Often I was safe, but not always.
Would I like some salsa? Of course I would ...
How to describe the flavor of cilantro? Spice experts will blather on about "orange peel mixed with parsley." One friend who shares my revulsion compares it to 20 Mule Team Borax, or a tincture of Clorox and powdered detergent. I find both comparisons inadequate. Soap is nothing compared to cilantro. Soap is merely a flavor. Cilantro is an affront.
It tastes like the feeling you get when you say something really, really stupid in front of your boss or the pope.
It tastes like that jerking, hurtling fall that sometimes comes as you enter sleep.
It tastes like the grief you feel over the public humiliation of a favorite teacher who was found drinking in the language lab.
To me, cilantro is not just a bad taste, it is the Platonic Ideal of Ick.
And, it is insidious. When cilantro is placed on the tongue, for a moment it remains discreet -- no flavor at all. You think you're okay, maybe; maybe it's just parsley.
And then -- whoosh! -- the taste fills your mouth. With every breath, your mouth, your nose, your throat are filled with molecules of cilantronity, as if some alien creature has entered your body in gaseous form and will soon exit as a slavering succubus through your chest cavity.
Granted, cilantro is a matter of sensory opinion: Some people hate it, some find it not at all unpleasant. But listen to how people who like it describe it:
"It tastes chemical," says one woman, as she rolls the ghastly leaves around in her mouth. "Like something oil-based. Something that is not animal or vegetable. Like something that is not food."
"It's not that bad," says another. "Okay, it's a little soapy, but it's not that bad."
Sounds yummy, doesn't it?
Cilantro is reportedly the most popular fresh herb in the world. You may think this information would leave me feeling like a global aberration, a person swimming feebly against the culinary tide, but in fact it only emboldens me. Remember how your mother asked, "If Carolyn jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?" Just because Asia likes this doesn't make it right.
I did, at one point, decide it must be just a failure of will, or perhaps imagination, on my part. I purchased a repulsively large bunch of the herb and munched on a leaf for as long as my gag reflex permitted. I tried, through sophisticated self-visualization techniques sometimes employed by sufferers of dread diseases, to imagine my taste buds joyously welcoming the horrid green flecks.
One-point-five seconds after placing it on my tongue, I spit the stuff out.
The experiment left me feeling oddly desolate. I am weak, I thought, a gastronomic failure.
And then, an idea. Find a facilitator, someone to help me overcome this crippling prejudice. Someone who could explain the allure of cilantro; to perhaps suggest a recipe or three that would make me appreciate all the possibilities of this no doubt versatile spice. And so I called Julia Child.
This took nerve. I hesitated to admit to one of the world's great food experts, a woman alive to the potential of all things gustatorial, that there is an entire species of edible vegetation I reject out of hand. I felt ... unsophisticated.
Still, I dialed her number and told her I wanted to talk about cilantro.
"I just hate it," she said. That familiar booming falsetto, amplified through a speaker phone, made her sound like God's chef. She said cilantro is the only flavor she despises "except, of course, garlic powder."
"But nobody worth their salt likes garlic powder," she said.
I agreed. This was great.
"I did have some very fresh cilantro when we were in Hawaii," she confided, "and that was the first time I had tolerated it. But otherwise I think it has a musty, horrid taste, and I hate it."
Me and Julia Child, we hate it.
Vindication so complete, I could practically taste it.