Omnivore - Cilantro: it's not just for food snobs

The education of taste

The most e-mailed article at the New York Times the last few days is a "Curious Cook" column about cilantro.

The article by Harold McGee makes the point that there is a very vocal minority of people who detest cilantro, despite its popular use around the world. But those who initially think the plant tastes like soap, or worse, often end up liking it.

That was certainly my own case. The first time I recall eating it was in Mexican cooking and I picked it out of my tacos. With time, though, I grew to enjoy it. Now, tacos don't taste right without it.

This phenomenon of how we can go from hating to liking a taste is the most interesting part of McGee's column. He interviewed Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Nortwestern University:

Dr. Gottfried turned out to be a former cilantrophobe who could speak from personal experience. He said 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 to evoke strong emotions, he explained, 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 and dirt, or crawly insects, 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.

“When your brain detects a potential threat, it narrows your attention,” Dr. Gottfried told me in a telephone conversation. “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 he explained that 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.

“I didn’t like cilantro to begin with,” he said. “But I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day.”

“So I began to like cilantro,” he said. “It can still remind me of soap, but it’s not threatening anymore, so that association fades into the background, and I enjoy its other qualities. On the other hand, if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.”

This has all kinds of implications. It means that the education of taste is sensible. If kids are regularly exposed to food they initially dislike, because it doesn't meet the standards of  taste shaped by McDonald's, perhaps they can learn to eat better taste- and health-wise.

A friend recently sent me the menu of a French kindergarten. Each  lunch was planned around the day's theme of study and, of course, featured cuisine instead of slop barely above vending-machine quality.

Any such effort here would almost certainly cause Tea Baggers to shake their fists and shout about "French elitists!" But there's also evidence to suggest that when people broaden their palate's curiosity and taste, they also develop broader interests generally.

Gottfried's argument also helps explain the powerful association of memory and food. The most common is nostalgia for mom's cooking. But there are plenty of other moments that become fixed in the memory because of an association of food and pleasure.

I recall, for example, about 20 years ago when I was working in Sonoma County at a mental health facility. The chef there grew a good bit of the produce she used. It was a beautiful place with restful views.

One day, walking through the garden, I kneeled to pick a tomato and bit into it. The flood of flavors evoked intense reverie of a time I lived in rural Georgia and frequently ate such tomatoes. All that was positive about that mainly trying experience came to mind. Now, I literally cannot eat a good tomato without revisiting this thread of memory.

So, don't pick the cilantro out of your taco. You may be denying yourself a new experience resonant with memory and potential.

(Photo of guinea-pig gourmand grazing on cilantro courtesy of Gawker's Valleywag.)