When you're 25, more or less making a living as a writer of various merits and degrees of seriousness, residing in New York City and haling from small college town Ohio, returning to New York after Thanksgiving in said college town Ohio (and it's distant cousin, Southwestern farmland Ohio) to begin reading Philip Roth's Ghost Writer with lines like, "Mother, I will not prate in platitudes to please the adults!" (a rare instance of exclamation point in the otherwise understated Roth punctuation situation) you kind of second guess how you're going to write the ostensible would-be write itself "Thanksgiving: A Safe Haven From Cilantro in a World of Fewer and Fewer" that would go something like this:
People talk about all the familiar wonders of Thanksgiving: the turkey, the dressing (stuffing, whatever), candied yams (sweet potatoes, whatever), green bean casserole, mashed potatoes (which apparently are basically full-proof, apparently), the pies, the gravy (you can poor it on everything, it's so good, right?) And the best part of all of it: no where, ever, ever will you find a scant piece, a dash, a chiffonade of cilantro.
Is this a coincidence I ask you? Well, of course it is, strictly speaking, but it is interesting that America's favorite meal of the year, the one we all can get totally behind is the cilantro hater's favorite meal too. There are some places, some meals, some traditions just too sacred, just too refined to be bastardized by the presence of that nasty, can't even compete with sage, rosemary and thyme herb...
when what you're really thinking about is, as Roth and many great "meta," if you will, or don't, that's an obnoxious ivory tower term, or write about writing writers will tend to make you do, the place of the writer, the vanity of the question itself, the inherent narcissism of it all, the writing's relationship to other people in the writer's life, the question of its meaning other than to perk readers to say "that's good," "I get it," "that's funny" or be entertained. These are questions others have mused on, successfully - notably, Joyce, Hollingshurst and Roth himself. I'll leave that discourse where it lies, dynamic and totally unanswerable.
What strikes me is something I would imagine affects everyone who writes, produces art, performs any job, really: that sometimes there are more important things going on than what you're doing. (Sure, sure, this is a young liberal idea, I get that, but we don't want to stop wanting to be important, or rather, to do important things, right?) Food writers, when they talk about their form, tend to take one of two positions: they write entertainment (maybe infotainment) or the work is very important because everyone eats and food matters to our cultures and our histories and connects people and so on (Ms. MFK Fisher is the incontrovertible paradigm here). I agree with both positions, and I really honestly sometimes totally agree with the second one, it's just that damn sanctimonious tone always used to defend it.
Nate Zucherman, the great protagonist of many of Roth's novels, including The Ghost Writer, talks with his mentor, the secluded (I'm thinking Pynchon-esque) EI Lonoff, who describes his own long days of writing as essentially creating a sentence, rearranging it, eating lunch, writing another sentence, moving it around, going for a walk, throwing away all the sentences, then starting over. Bumped into my lit.-loving friend Wells in Ohio who talked about David Foster Wallace's description of writing as setting up a 9-hour day, 1 hour of writing, 8 hours of hating himself for not being able to write anything: indeed, poor bastards.
It's a funny occupation and people who do it love to complain about it. But they all seem drawn to it as if to some kind of duty, but a duty to self, which gets complicated. Kind of reminds me of other professions, notably chefs, who are only allowed to complain on their own time, lest they get fired, stabbed, hated or, worse, never promoted. Complain they will, but love it, need it -- absolutely.
It seems to me, at the end of the day, it's all about pleasure. People write because they're gifted and very often privileged enough to do so and they love the sweet agony of producing something good. People read for the same reasons (yes to learn, but people that really like to learn do it for pleasure, right?) Chefs cook for their own pleasure and for that of their diners. David Kamp talks about this in his United States of Arugula, that dining, above all else, should be pleasurable.
And back to Thanksgiving, which is one of the more pleasurable meals most of us will eat in a given year. Those crazy folks we call our families we often haven't seen in awhile, the food that never wavers, and if it does can and should be a source of hot contention, the cheesy but awesome spirit of thankfulness, or, as I like to thank of it, luckiness. The pleasure the day's chef gets from cooking the meal: basting the turkey, sweating the onions, seeing the smiling faces of everyone eating it, not doing the dishes. Then everyone sits back and does exactly as they would like to do: take a nap, watch the game, drink a little too much and zing your family, what have you. It's all permissible. Anything goes.
Thanksgiving is a great day and a great meal because people find pleasure in doing what they want to do and feel basically thankful for the whole situation. The same pleasure can come from writing. When you get to write about food, you get to double up on your own pleasure, and, if you can share that somehow (like my Grandpa's tried and true every year corn pudding), well, maybe that is something important enough, at least for a day's work.
It's said that bad service makes good food taste bad and bad food taste worse. It's also said that a restaurant review that dedicates any of its precious few words to notes on service is an implicit indictment of the restaurant's food: bad service makes bad food more conspicuous, less than sublime food calls attention to other arena's of dining, service being the most obvious of these arenas and handicap bathroom accessibility now too entering the mix.
While one could have held a wheelchair orgy in either of my brunch venue du jour's restrooms (if one were into that sort of thing) one would have had to lose his/her sensory skills altogether to miss the terrible service and uncharacteristically bad food featured, today. It is not lightly that I report this experience (blogging about hating cilantro is serious work) as I eat at this Underhill Ave. Prospect Heights Restaurant nearly every Saturday or Sunday, but the service has always been atrocious and today it has come to a head -- it has made the food bad, and that takes the bad service from the realm of idiosyncratic to inexcusable.
When our obviously new, but not necessarily in a bad way, server spilled a decent portion of my orange juice on the table, then took an extra napkin (we were 3 at a 4 top) to clean it up saying "Didn't ever happen," I found it cute, sort of like something I might say if I were him*, except, and this is a big difference, I would have actually gotten rid of the evidence of the thing that didn't ever happen -- he did not. Cheeky/feisty became sloppy/bad. But that's ok. Service is quirky here. I took my own napkin (knowing I'd have to ask for one right away if I wanted one for my meal by the time it got there) and finished the job, laughing and sharing my thoughts with my poor roommates/friends who constantly put up with not only my service and food criticism, but also my deep and relentless loathing of cilantro, something that inevitably comes up at every meal.
My toast was burnt. That's an interesting bad service/bad food overlap, because 1) it's entirely possible the server did the toasting of the toast and either way 2) the server should do some quality control and not bring obviously, objectively, deeply burnt toast to any table ever. I come in every week, I wear the same hat, almost every week, I chat with the managers and chef. Everyone deserves unburnt toast, but you treat your regulars the best, that's just how it's done. He quickly threw some not burnt wheat toast on my table without a word or skipping a beat, also fine, the guy was obviously busy, no doubt in the weeds of his own making.
Then there's the main dish. I had a Nova Salmon soft scramble, a special of the day. The eggs were neither soft nor really scrambled, and there were globules of uncooked uncombined white throughout. The salmon was overcooked -- I was hoping for a lox situation, but I didn't ask, so that's my fault. Then there was green stuff mixed in, looked like scallions and chives, but didn't do much to enhance the dish, other than add some color and scare me for a moment that the dish might get worse once I got a big bite of unexpected cilantro. I didn't, but I don't think that it would have even mattered: I know, that's how bad the whole experience was becoming.
The usually great salad wasn't any good (too much frisee and it was that really thick too green stuff) and I'd probably only convinced myself that the coffee wasn't as delicious as normal. When the usually affable manager lady came over and said nonchalantly, more by us than to us, more at us than with us, "We really need that table ladies," I was nonplussed . I urged my fellow diners not to hurry, that we could finish our coffees and cocktails, even though we really wanted to leave immediately after her order, even though we'd waited twenty minutes for our table, even though we'd only been sitting for 35 minutes. "There's a nice way to do that," I said, "and that wasn't it." I thought about saying something to the manager lady, a move I would have made in a more confrontational mood, but something about November rain says to me "blog it, don't say it."
Brunch is all about turnover, turn and burn, in and out, make your money then get them out. Restaurants are also about pleasing customers. Sometimes you have to balance the two, sacrifice a bit of one for the benefit of the other. But don't sacrifice both, for the benefit of nothing. When we were so rudely asked to leave it was after 2 o'clock. The brunch rush, everywhere in New York, has passed by this time, it might stay steady until 3 or 4, but the peak has passed. We would have stayed another minute or two, left happy and been on with our days. The folks waiting for our table would have had it in just a couple more minutes. Everyone would have been happy, except for the bad food, worse service and new 35-minute meal policy, of course.
Indeed, they often say bad service makes bad food worse. (Which came first, the bad food or the bad service, I do not know, but they certainly have an aggrandizing effect on one another.) What they don't often say is that bad service can be so bad as to make you wish, if given the choice, one of those green specs in the soft scrambled eggs HAD been cilantro, had the service been a little more gracious, the eggs a little more scrambled, a little softer, a little more mixed. A good meal to me might be one where cilantro is the worst thing about it. I'm comfortable in that environment. I know myself there. When I'm asked to abruptly leave a meal I wasn't enjoying anyway, it leaves a worse taste in my mouth than stupid skunk of the earth herb I'm sure I will encounter soon.
*I worked as a server for years, part-time in college and then full-time after, so, like many servers I suspect, I feel a paradoxical sympathy for people in the position and an expectation of what I consider reasonable standards, ie the ones I cared about when I did the job.
One of the nice things about hating cilantro so much is that it serves as a convenient benchmark for dubious or relative hatred of other things. Do I hate midtown? Yes. Do I hate it as much as cilantro? No, not even close. But, when the two come together, a funny things happens: somehow, neither seems as bad. You can feel the universe working in some sort of sick harmony, if only for a frenzied 20-minute at my desk lunch.
When my new (and dear, vegan) coworker suggests taco salad as a reasonable midtown lunch choice, I don't have to think twice. Hale and hardy as early winter midtown soups may be, they get a little old. The taco salad offers a cornucopia of foodie wonderland ingredients: farm-to-table (farm's in California, but I hear sustainability is going out of style) iceberg lettuce, canned supermarket black beans, anemic diced tomatoes, hormone and/or antibiotic treated sour cream, flavorless but high-fat pre-shredded "cheddar" and "jack" cheeses, overly acidiulated "guacamole," and then there's that beautiful brown slice of Tex-mexamericana, the fried taco salad shell. Well, obviously I couldn't say no. Hell, it's Thursday.
What's more, as new coworker described said taco salad and it's "delicious" "tomato and basil" component, I was intrigued. This is where I made my fatal error, which I only realized too late. No self-respecting vendor of authentic Tex-Mex midtown cuisine would bastardize the genre's standards so much as to put basil in a taco salad -- this isn't Little Italy and it's not Thai either (a cuisine that interestingly holds my greatest friend and greatest foe herbs in equal esteem). But, I didn't second guess.
I walked into the "Bagel" shop on 48th street with authority, heading straight to the Tex-Mex section (south of salad bar/bagel/panini/, east of sushi and make your own udon) like I'd been doing it for years. "Taco Salad, black beans" was all I had to say. The guy knew what to do, like he'd been doing it for years. It's when he started spooning on the tomato/basil concoction that it occurred to me, "You know Erin, that probably isn't basil in there. Your sweet but innocent coworker meant miscellaneous herb when she said basil, not basil as you understand it." But, I figured, any opportunity to keep trying the stuff -- who knows when the magic day I quit hating it will be. Plus, this didn't exactly promise to be the best meal I'd ever had in my life, although it would, of course, come close.
Well, as I eat my taco salad, yes, right now, the cilantro really isn't too noticeable. It's more a sporadic annoyance between inoffensive if underwhelming bites. I can see a tiny piece sitting on a tomato dice right now. Ok, that tomato piece has been discarded, that's one that won't sneaking onto my palate of hate.
The total effect of the dish is actually to fit perfectly in its time and place, which is all you can really ever ask for any dish, ever. In that sense, it's the perfect midtown lunch. A basically neutral, but protein rich, combination of textures and flavors that don't distract or get in the way of the busy workday. The slight annoyance and, in this case, depth of flavor the cilantro provides, reminds me of where I am, the most annoying and crowded area of Manhattan. It's only fitting that my lunches here should contain errant or apropos cilantro (cilantro is never apropos to me, but it is to various cuisines, like Tex-Mex, maybe my new favorite) in sparse but consistent quantities and manifestations.
Today's lesson: Cilantro isn't basil. Basil does not go in taco salad. When you hear "basil" and "taco" in the same sentence -- buyer beware.
I posted an "Ask the Editors" question on a popular industry food magazine this morning. The question went as follows: "What makes cilantro so special?" The editors responded with:
Thank you for your inquiry. I am special for many reasons. I feel inventive. I’ve got motion, restrained emotion. I use my arms, I use my leaves, I use my seeds, I use my side-step, I use my fingers, I even, on occasion, have been known to use my imagination. I’d like to make you see that there's no herb here. No herb like me. I'm special, so special. I’ve simply got to have some of your attention, give it to me. Love, Cilantro
At least cilantro loves itself (and I'm sure his mom thinks he's special -- bitch).
In the spirit of full disclosure, this is in reference to another question that came in, when I worked at the same popular industry food magazine, that went "What makes cinnamon so special?" Sure, what makes all foods so special?
But the question at hand is, what makes cilantro so special in the skunk of the earth way, not in the mull me some red wine, garnish my cappuccino, serve as the je ne sais quoi (I'm learning French, more on what makes French special later) for any number of, largely, Midwestern-Mex-inspired chili recipes way.
For me it's a different kind of je ne sais quoi, the Platonic ideal of awful, manifest in that stupid little herb. At a certain point, things must be described in relation to other things, right?, so, for instance, one way I could describe other foods is by how far away they are from the flavor of cilantro (the flavor of awful); a simple vanilla panna cotta would score very well here, having nothing whatsoever to do with the flavors of cilantro. Can't quite explain why, just know vanilla panna cotta doesn't taste like cilantro.
For a lot of people the stuff tastes like soap. I myself haven't eaten a lot of soap, and my folks, moderate-conservatives as they might be, never insisted I try it, even when using phrases like "I f##$&ing hate cilantro." But, I have a vague sense of what soaps generally taste like: it's slipped into my mouth while showering or washing my face, or whatever it might be, plus they (they) say that some high percentage of taste is smell, and I definitely know what aggregate soap smells like, so that adds to the idea that I know what soap tastes like as well. Despite a general idea of this, I only vaguely taste it when eating cilantro.
Again, what I really taste is awfulness. From it's texture, (cilantro-y awful), to it odor (pungently offensive) to it's flavor (Platonic idea of terrible) it's just sort of vaguely herbaceous and, here's one of the main problems, completely overwhelming.
I hate cilantro with a consuming passion. I think it's important to determine why we (the royal we) hate things, you know, in the spirit of fairness. Why we love things can (and maybe should) remain a mystery, lest we deconstruct the epistemological foundation on which that love might not have known it stood. But hate, that's a "bad thing" or, certainly a lot of hate is really bad. Perhaps if we figure out why we hate a thing we can 1) quit hating it 2) come to terms with that hate or 3) if the hate is valid, spread that hate with the utmost determination.
Jury's still out for me on where this hate will go, but, I think I've figured out the nature of my hate:
1) Platonic ideal of "tastes bad" 2) Overwhelms every dish it's in with its badness 3) Increased popularity in kitchens (both home and professional) across the country, counter-intuitively paralleling the rise in educated food consumers with discriminating palates 4) Frequently served with what would otherwise be some of my favorite dishes/cuisines: salsa -- LOVE tomatoes; everything Indian, everything Thai, everything "South of the border" 5) Makes me an outcast, constantly chastised by my bigoted friends
and I would urge any of you cilantro haters out there to do the same.