On Cilantro and Grief: Forbearance In The Presence Of The Bruise
Cilantro has a fascinating ancient pedigree.
The seed. The leaf. The root. It is all edible and some people love it.
Obviously some people are neutral about coriander/cilantro.
And some people are deeply disturbed by the flavor of it. Julia Child is one – she said that when it came near her she wanted to “throw it on the ground”. I have a dear friend who is devoted to all things Mexican (cilantro has been part of Mexican cuisine for five centuries) who hates cilantro passionately.
Whether you love it or hate it – the scent is quite fragrant. And it is fragrant because of the high level of aldehydes in it.
What are aldehydes?
Let’s take a very quick and shallow detour into organic chemistry…
The word aldehyde was coined by Justus von Liebig as a contraction of the Latin ALcohol DEHYDrogenatus (dehydrogenated alcohol).
Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family (lady, stink, lightning etc) of insects.
Which might explain one etymology of the word coriander (the same plant as cilantro). The Latin word coriandrus comes from ‘koris’ meaning ‘bedbug’. So there is this old notion that coriander smells like some insects, possibly bedbugs.
Soaps are made by fragmenting fat molecules with strongly alkaline lye or its equivalent, and aldehydes are a byproduct of this process, as they are when oxygen in the air attacks the fats and oils in cosmetics. And many bugs make strong-smelling, aldehyde-rich body fluids to attract or repel other creatures. You can smell soap and not be grossed out by it.
What is the deal?
Some say genetics solves the problem…but it seems that it is deeper than that.
Jay Gottfried, is a neuroscientist at Northwestern University who studies how the brain perceives smells and a former cilantrophobe.
Gottfried postulates that the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences.
The senses of smell and taste evolved (and co-evolved) to evoke strong emotions because they were critical to finding food and mates and avoiding poisons and predators. When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.
If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents or eau d’ bedbug, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs – just like Julia Child.
When your brain detects a potential threat, it narrows your attention. You don’t need to know that a dangerous food has a hint of asparagus and sorrel to it. You just get it away from your mouth.
But every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food.
If you are exposed regularly and in different ways it may still have the distasteful notes but it’s not threatening anymore and the panic response seems to fade.
Why might I be writing about this today?
Let’s see if I can pull this around.
Cilantro itself can be reshaped to make it easier to take. A Japanese study published in the last few years suggests that crushing or bruising the leaves will give leaf enzymes the chance to gradually convert the aldehydes into other substances with no aroma.
The oxidized aldehydes have a different scent and taste. If you want to give cilantro another chance…that might be the way.
I’m grateful for the praise for them but often people write to me about these newsletters “why aren’t they more cheery?” or “why are they often about such hard subjects?” or “why does grief figure so heavily in a newsletter about tallow based skincare?”
These are fair questions and this isn’t the standard fare for newsletter fodder, to be sure. Though I do try to pepper them with humor where I can. Though I did perform long form improvisational comedy for more than twenty years so I am fairly reliably hilarious in the right situations.
But I write about these things because I think there might be a kind of wisdom or forbearance in the presence of the bruise. Just like with the cilantro. The bruised version allows, maybe allows, one to come into the world of the thing that often isn’t easy – grief, endings, cultural loss.
Might it be that the things that we find most distasteful and trying in our days are not thrown on the floor out of disgust or ignored and turned from but bruised somehow? Opened up gently but not pulverized by our desire to know completely or process fully but just the first wisps of the scent so that we might know it only a bit at first. And then mayhaps more.