After getting some feedback from folks on Friday’s post about cilantro haters, I am no longer so certain that there is nothing innate or genetic going on. It’s almost as if calling people assholes is not a very good rhetorical strategy.
I still don’t think any of the scientific studies that I’ve seen, including the survey of the ethnic distribution of cilantro-hating or the twin study, provide a shred of proof that it’s genetic. In addition, although I do hear people who are saying that their loathing of cilantro is something other and different from loathing of an ordinary food, I remain unconvinced that the strength of food loathing is evidence that anything other than food loathing is going on. The reason for that is that human beings eat some pretty strongly flavored stuff the world over, and there are many foods I could think of that would inspire a strong response of revulsion, either by their flavor alone, or by the idea of them. I still remember my first taste of lemon grass. I was in college, and I felt like I’d been served a soup of furniture polish. It tasted like chemicals to me, not food, and I couldn’t imagine how anyone could eat it. My husband was with me at the time, and he also had not had lemon grass before, but he enjoyed the soup.
However, I have had a couple of folks send me a link to an anecdote that is kind of convincing.
For background, in email, I wrote:
It would be very easy to prove this scientifically. All you would have to do is isolate and characterize all of the flavor compounds in the cilantro (there’s a good chance it’s been done and is in the literature already), and then feed it to haters and non-haters to see if there’s something the haters can taste that the non-haters can’t taste. I could do this experiment in my basement if I had a basic organic chemistry lab and a gas chromatograph.
The thing about all of this is that I couldn’t understand why someone hadn’t already done the obvious gas chromatograph thing. There’s one in every organic chem/biochem laboratory, and plenty of curious/drunk/bored/argumentative scientists out there who would have the same debates going about cilantro, so why not get some real answers, rather than going around asking twins if they like cilantro, which gives you pretty much nothing.
Well, it turns out someone has tried this. Reporter Josh Kurz wanted to learn more about why the herb was so offensive to him, he ended up doing a “supersmeller” test with a gas chromatograph. Since the flavor that bothered him so much in cilantro was something he could also smell, he theorized that there was an aroma that he was picking up that cilantro-lovers were not.
I put my supersmelling nose to the test and at 20 minutes, I identify the evil smell.
“They’re all unsaturated aldahydes,” Dr. George Preti explains. There we have it, the compound that ruins every dish and makes me think of soap.
Ten minutes later, Wysocki and Preti identify the unmistakable smell of cilantro that they love. I, however, smell nothing.
This, it turns out, is the real problem. My whole life I’ve been unable to pick up on the scent that is so overwhelmingly good for cilantro lovers that it trumps any possible bad. I come to a disappointing realization: I am not an X-Man with superkeen sensory abilities. I am a sensory dud who’s missing the true nature of cilantro.
I’m not sure if this new theory is sufficient to quell the cilantro wars, or only to heat them up further. Earlier in the article, Kurz cops to the attitude that bugs me so much about internet cilantro warriors:
My quest for answers began with the Internet. It was there that I learned (from questionable sources) that our hatred arises from the fact that we are supertasters. Gifted (or burdened) with a “supersensitive palate,” we are some of the rare beings who are tuned into the true nature of this nasty green beast.
It’s the idea that people who hate cilantro have some kind of genetic gift that gives them insight into a food while the rest of us mindless sheep happily chow it down that grates on my nerves. When Kurz learns he is not a supertaster, by sampling a strip of paper soaked with propylthiouracil, he posits that perhaps he is a supersmeller, and finally learns the disappointing truth that he may in fact have a cilantro-related disability.
I have to give him props for his humorous treatment of this bizarrely inflammatory subject.
By the way, I’ve been pretty confused by the supertaster concept. At one point, I tried to determine if I was a supertaster by counting the fungiform papillae on my tongue. Maybe I’m specially challenged, but I’m not sure counting one’s own fungiform papillae is a doable activity for most people. However, if it is defined as people who strongly sense the taste of PTU, I am so there. I’m like an ultrasupertaster. We did that experiment in high school, and, yep, it’s nasty.
Let me tell you, being a supertaster is a really disappointing superpower to have. How often in a fight with a supervillain do you think he gets close enough to let you taste him? I’d trade it any day for flying or invisibility.