by Elise Hempel
Sometime back in the late '80s or early '90s, at an African restaurant somewhere in Chicago, there it was again, in whatever dish I'd ordered – that taste, just a hint of it (what was it?), in this bite and now in that one, that fresh, intriguing taste I'd tasted before in both Indian and Mexican food. I had to find out what it was, knowing that it wasn't the obvious fish or chicken or lamb, or the okra or carrot or eggplant. No Google yet, no smartphone then (or now, I must admit) to do a quick internet search, I may have asked the waiter what it was in my dish that was so … fantastic. Or I may have asked my friend Liz, my dining partner that night, a real Chicagoan who lived in the city proper (I was only from the northwest suburbs) and was slightly more savvy about international cuisine, frequenting the ethnic restaurants in her northside neighborhood. Whatever the case, Liz was suddenly my culinary opposite: She hated that taste. And she didn't just hate it; she hated it with eye-squinting, nose-scrunching disgust.
I'm remembering that particular night many years ago as I stand here chopping cilantro for the pico de gallo that will top our pulled-chicken tacos tonight, as I breathe it in – that fresh, indefinable green. Cilantro. Can there really be a time when I didn't know what cilantro was? When I was a part-time cilantro-sleuth, tracking its scent in every restaurant, trying to make connections between this dish and that, always whispering to myself, There it is again, trying to match a taste to a name, a thing I could see?
Since then, I've learned that cilantro means the leaves of the coriander plant and is also sometimes called coriander, that there may be a genetic reason that some people love the taste of cilantro while others (like Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa fame) taste it as "soapy" or "rotten." Since then, I've tried, unsuccessfully, to grow it at home; I've proudly differentiated it from Italian parsley for uninitiated young grocery cashiers squinting to inspect it through the produce bag; I've used it without a second thought in guacamole and cucumber-yogurt sauce and chimichurri sauce and a thousand different curries, in dishes from Lebanon and Thailand and China and Argentina and Morocco; I know to chop it delicately and to remove the bitter stems and to add it at the very last moment to whatever I'm cooking, so as to retain its full flavor.
Why am I writing about cilantro? Well, I've been thinking about complex tastes, sophisticated cooking, health and healthy eating. About a more innocent past, a time when things still held some mystery, some magic – before the birth of Google and instant knowledge, after Watergate and its investigations into things dark and sinister, before I had even the slightest interest in politics. And – now that I am interested in politics – I'm thinking about globalization in the wake of Donald Trump's fight-picking with allies like Mexico, Great Britain, and Australia, in the wake of both the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and Trump's refusal to support the collective-defense commitment of Article 5 of the NATO agreement. I'm also, now that it's almost summer, thinking of greenness, of gardens, of our planet and the environment.
In other words, I'm thinking of everything not Trump. And as I prepare dinner, soon to ingest another heavy dose of the nightly news, as I place on my tongue and savor a single thin leaf of cilantro – this fresh, green, complex international herb – somehow it's a momentary antidote to Trump's poison.