I happen to be a cilantro hater and was delighted to discover that Julia Child shared my aversion and told an interviewer that whenever it appeared on her plate she would throw it on the floor. I know, I know. Lovers of this herb cannot seem to get enough of it and even rave about its health benefits, but the fact remains that some of us experience its flavor as what we imagine a rancid dishrag would taste like. Scientific investigations now establish that because of varying chemical reactions, some people experience cilantro differently from most, and I am happy to have this justification, for what food lover wants to be thought of as a picky eater? Jeffrey Steingarten makes this point when he describes his obligation as a food critic to overcome culinary antipathies for the sake of his art, and set off to eat Greek food and Indian desserts without holding his nose. The subjects of food cravings and especially aversions intrigue me because such quirks offer intimate glimpses into the food habits of others or, as James Beard put it, their “delights and prejudices.”
Beard, for instance, was revolted by milk — even as a child — and couldn’t bear the sight of anyone drinking it along with a good meal. (This sentiment is echoed by restaurant consultant Clark Wolf who told me that he loathes steamed milk of any kind and that although he loves coffee, lattes and cappuccinos make him queasy.) Although Beard took a stand against badly-cooked anything, he singled out French fries because they are so ubiquitous. He complained, “The notion that these bits of potato — when limp, greasy, without flavor or texture and barely warm — should be served with every dish in the world is odious beyond belief.” And as if their omnipresence were not bad enough, Beard was horrified that people drench fries with cold catsup. He also railed against what is done to meatballs in the name of Italian cuisine, and saw those “little balls of chopped meat mixed with various inappropriate additives and then cooked in some vague sauce for minutes or hours” as the ultimate in culinary nightmares.
Brussels sprouts, source of all evil
Probably, the food that takes the worst rap of all is Brussels sprouts, perhaps because some pretty good writers have taken colorful shots at them. Calvin Trillin, during a trip to Barbados, which had been under British rule for three centuries, stared glumly at the Brussels sprouts mounded on a hotel buffet table. “The English have a lot to answer for,” he said. He wonders why colonial people didn’t rebel against them unless … “Maybe in those old newsreel clips that show hordes of chanting demonstrators rushing through the streets in the days before independence, what they are actually chanting is not ‘British go home!’ or ‘Down with the Raj!’ but ‘No more Brussels sprouts!’” Likewise, British writer, Ford Madox Ford, who lived in Provence, happily pointed out that it is a land where Brussels sprouts will not grow. He went so far as to say that this very Britishy vegetable was the source of all evil, speculating that it was Eve who ate the first one, thus consummating the primary curse of humanity. I suspect the much-maligned Brussels sprouts have themselves been victimized by a long history of being overcooked.
British cooking as a whole would take an even bigger beating from Elizabeth David who had lived out World War II in Mediterranean countries and India where she became infatuated with the fresh ingredients and deep flavors of those regions. Upon her return to postwar England, she stayed in a hotel and described the food there as “produced with a kind of bleak triumph, which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity’s needs.”
America’s M.F.K. Fisher was also adept at expressing her culinary peeves, commenting in particular at the unwelcome prospect of being served hors d’oeuvres: “Hell! I loathed hors d’oeuvres! I conjured disgusting visions of square plates of oily fish, of soggy vegetables glued together with cheap mayonnaise, of rank radishes and tasteless butter.” In the same vein, Fisher denounced dips, her first concern being that men don’t like them, and going on to say they are messy and that “the idea of all kinds of wafers and chips and vegetables and plastic skewers dabbling in a common bowl, and often breaking off in it, was repugnant.” She ends her diatribe by naming names: “Bean-Bacon Chip-Dip. Blue Cheese Chili Fluff and Pink Devil Dip-n-Dunk.”
Cilantro haters, unite
Finally, Barbara Kafka, who always can be counted on to speak her mind, vented her irritations and prejudices in her aptly named book, “The Opinionated Palate.” She loves simple dishes using the best ingredients such as fettuccine with only butter or olive oil, salt, black pepper and cheese, but cautions us to use a proper piece of aged Parmesan for grating and never those odious red-and-green containers of already grated cheese from the supermarket. But my favorite Kafka peeve is her loathing for pasta salad. Making exceptions for Chinese cold noodles and cold Japanese udon which she enjoys like the rest of us, she condemns those all-American “slimy, cooked, pseudo-Italian pastas dished up with bits of end of vegetables and ham or shrimp swimming in oily vinaigrettes or mayonnaise.”
I too loathe pasta salads and so was pleased to share this prejudice with Barbara Kafka. No doubt the appeal of shared negative opinions is that they confirm and reinforce our own complaints. It may come as no surprise, therefore, that cilantro-haters have gone one step further and formed online communities that allow members to vent their grievances in concert. Perhaps the same impulse to organize around common complaints explains the present state of party politics in America. Tea, anyone?
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photo: Cilantro. Credit: Barbara Sauder