I first encountered the green, slimy-sharp taste of cilantro in a Mexican restaurant downtown. Who knew such innocuous-looking little flakes could hijack a whole bowl of guacamole?
“Can you please be sure to leave the pico de gallo off?” I ask the Baja Fresh cashier. He turns to squint at the menu. “That dish doesn’t even have pico,” he says. I am relieved. A bite of cilantro flares through my nose like an accidental snort of soapy water.
“Oh, just wait til you’re older, then you’ll like it,” was a phrase I heard a lot as a kid. Now I’ve given up hope that my adulthood would usher in a new era of culinary tolerance. Growing up has only cemented my fanatical finickiness.
I have an abiding fear of any rye or remotely seeded breads. I detest the brown, sick, cloying taste of caraway seeds. Don’t get me started on the thick, acrid slipperiness of Brussels sprouts. I can’t handle a green apple’s crisp, pinching sourness. And yes, the rich, greasy spice of pepperoni still rides on the cheese, even if I peel off the offending circles. I can’t let the pickled ginger touch my sushi – it will prickle rampant through my mouth and nose, spoiling the taste of everything else. I can’t stand the high, sickly-sweetness and subtle bitter finish of the artificial sugars in “lite” yogurt and juice.
Once, when I was in college, a concerned friend stopped me to ask me what the matter had been yesterday. He’d seen me with my boyfriend, gasping through tears, but had not wanted to interfere. That was the time I decided to try a bite of Lala’s General Tso’s Chicken, and ended up with a tiny red dagger on my tongue. It was my first and (I pray) my last oral inferno. The tingling scald of that pepper lingered on my lips for hours.
My other gastronomical grievances are mere annoyance compared to my abhorrence of peppers. Even round, cheerful bell peppers have an ominous, dewy smell that I assiduously avoid. The hot, dark, gravelly scent of the table pepper shaker raises a mild nausea with each whiff – I just have to pray that my dinner companions will decline that fresh ground pepper.
For me, no other food has the pepper’s ability to inflict not just a dreadful taste, but actual pain. I avoid peppers the same way I avoid sharp corners. The rest of my family craves spicy bayou shrimp, relishing the burn between crusty bites of bread. They love summertime blue-claws in a damp, steaming coat of rust-colored Old Bay. But this summer rite of Maryland finds me in the kitchen, gingerly rinsing my spiny portion, to keep that deep red grainy spice from overpowering the sweet crab. Bisques are also dicey, particularly since my love of seafood soups compels me to order them again and again with feverish hope, in my life’s refrain: “Is that a mild soup?”
The problem is that my conception of “mild” is its own absolute realm. To me, “mild” does not mean the dish possesses a hint of spice that plays nicely against the creamy avocado. “Mild” does not mean a bit of red pepper to add heat and texture to the sweet corn and crab. “Mild” means that not only does my food contain no peppers, but that ALL of the ingredients in my food have never touched a pepper (think the fried calamari plated with – red alert! – jalapeno), or been prepared on a surface that recently touched a pepper (think a cheese steak grill when the customer before me ordered you-know-whats). The bisque the wait staff calls mild is still a total crapshoot for me. (Don’t listen to that Bonefish Grill waiter, the crab soup’s laced with pepper! Sansom Street Oyster House lobster bisque OK).
It’s a wonder that anyone ever eats dinner with me.
Now, because I sometimes CAN eat it, for politeness’ sake, there are those who imply that I am fabricating a pickiness that confers a special distinction, a childlike sensitivity that I imagine to be endearing. But I’d quit this weirdness in a second if I could. There are people like my grandfather who will clean their plate and yours, too, no matter what’s on it (“That ice cream isn’t freezer burned, it’s perfectly fine!”) This is a better, friendlier, heartier way of life. For me, each menu is a minefield of ginger, chilies or capers, overpowering seeds and herbs, cilantro mayonnaises, sun-dried pepper spreads, and unexpectedly hot, smoky ketchups. The guy at the deli who gave my BLT a wanton, unwonted and unwanted dash of pepper rendered my lunch inedible. I don’t go there much anymore. I don’t want to be the neurotic customer enunciating “do NOT put PEPPER on the SANDWICH” as if I’m one grain away from anaphylactic shock.
“I’m sorry!” the Baja Fresh cashier says as he hands me the bag. “It did come with pico after all. Do you want me to try to take it out?” I peek at my plate. The verdant green flecks of cilantro have already emigrated from their chunky tomato home to settle on the shores of the rice. What to do? Raise a fuss? Order again? Ask for a refund? Leave in a huff for somewhere less convenient, but cilantro-free? A line of normal, cilantro-eating customers is waiting and he’s the only one at the register. “No, I’ll take it, thank you anyway,” I answer. I’m quite dexterous with a fork. My lunch may yet be saved.
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