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Friday, February 29, 2008

Wikipedia and Cilantro, a Close Reading (Part I)

As recent events would have it, namely that I've had the death cough all week (thanks roommate) I've had time to sit back (in truth lie nearly comatose, lest I aggravate the death cough) and contemplate things. Of course that's basically what I do all the time anyway, (contemplate, not lie near comatose (I'm trying to cut back on commas for lent and just removed one I had placed after "Of course," which is making me feel decidedly uncomfortable -- bring on the parentheses)) but I guess when I'm sick and it's late February and it seems winter will never end, these contemplations run deeper, stretch further back. And I think it's in this context that I got to thinking of my high school English teacher from years back who, suffice it to say, was a beyond excellent one.

I learned a whole lotta shit from that one (including the idea that profanity is a form of laziness and that "that" is an overused word -- I agree on the latter but we'll have to agree to disagree on the prior -- a life without "fuck" is not worth living or put another way, I really enjoy using the word "fuck.") including an introductory survey (is that repetitive?) on lit. theory and criticism which would eventually become my collegiate English concentration, because I'm precisely that cool.

One school I remember learning about way back when was New Criticism, a branch of criticism that is absolutely no longer new. What it involves, at least in part, is a close reading of the text. In new criticism, in close reading, the text is supreme (ie it holds supremacy over say the author's biography or other "outside" things). As such we read it closely, extract as much information, as many clues as to what's going on, what's being said, what it all "means" as possible. Because we read so closely lots of stuff matters: sentence length, syntax, chapter length, diction and especially punctuation (including commas). It's a fun way to read things because you can go as deep as you want. Each and every sentence is its own vast universe.

So (just removed a comma -- don't need it if sentence introduction has fewer than three words?) for old time's sake and to connect a few lose wires in my brain, I thought it might be fun to apply a new critical approach to the Wikipedia entry for cilantro. So pop some popcorn, grab a beer, toke a fire and get comfy -- you're in for a treat; hell, you're in for a miniseries.

As a first installment I'd like to address but one piece of wiki-cilantra-minutia. Go to Wikipedia, enter cilantro and see what happens, or simply follow this convenient link where I've already taken these steps for you. Perhaps you'll notice what I have: there is no cilantro page on Wikipedia, per se; there is instead a Coriander page to which you are automatically redirected (now there's a passive sentence -- this makes it seem like the world or some ominous figure has created this coriander reality, as opposed to the more specific and isolated Wikipedia). How about that?

Sure (removed comma) in a certain sense cilantro and coriander are synonymous (which I just learned means have similar meanings, not necessarily exactly the same -- I verified this through three different dictionaries), but the seed is never really called cilantro seed whereas the leaf goes by one or the other. In this way Wikipedia's choice makes sense -- coriander covers more ground. Then again (just removed a comma) the hate of the seed (I call the seed coriander and the leaf cilantro which I believe is fairly common practice, at least in the US) is not something I experience, it's not something I really know about anyone else experiencing. While I do not love coriander seed to the degree I hate the cilantro leaf (removed comma) I do like the seed, I like it just fine.

Is it possible then that Wikiwantsta downplay the herb's nastiness by putting the whole thing under one innocuous umbrella? No I don't really think so. I'm not a crazy paranoid person (read I'm not a pathologically crazy paranoid person). If we look to the right of the page, the plant's genus is coriandrum -- it makes etymological sense to call the whole plant that, if we're going to call it one thing. For Wikipedia's purposes -- a quick, schematic and sometimes in-depth look at a thing -- if they want to combine the whole set of cilantro-y things, and it would make sense to, I guess choosing the one that contains the Latin root makes sense. But it is a certain kind of highbrow throwdown in an otherwise proletariat milieu. Yeah. Suck on that sentence new critics.

I guess in the end I don't have what one might reasonably call an opinion about the coriander redirect situation, which is fairly apropos as that's where I generally found myself in the old literary theory and criticism days: full or thoughts, most of them deconstructing each other. So let me leave my analysis in a place I don't often like to. I think its interesting that Wikipedia redirects the cilantro seeker to the coriander page. I hate that word "interesting." It's usually, I find, an abdication of meaning. It's an excuse to not opine. It's pure theatrics facing nonplus when someone says something decidedly not interesting. But in the rare instance that something is that, just interesting, why force it to be anything else?

Friday, February 22, 2008

White People and Cilantro

I would like to take this opportunity, that my public forum I Hate Cilantro blog has so provided me, to stand on a soap box of a different sort today. I might make some of you white hipsters out there uncomfortable in doing so, but, alas, this is a price I'm willing to pay -- I like skinny jeans and Vampire Weekend just as much as the next guy (my hip, music-loving coworker has told me Vampire Weekend would be a good choice to illustrate my clear hipness).

In the past week I've received emailed links or Gchat status notifications that would have me reading/viewing/listening to items like Top 10 Raps Songs White People Like and the Stuff White People Like Blog. In the past month I've noticed similar Web 2.0 (if you will) manifestations, such as the hip office worker's favorite SomeEcards' treatment of Black History Month, or Black Heritage Month as I'm told by a New York Teaching Fellow friend it is supposed to be called. SomeEcards has cards with lines like "Let's do the whitest thing possible" where a group of honkies (if you will) ride together in a ski lift. In another, it is suggested that an appropriate way to celebrate Black Heritage Month might be to abstain from shopping at JCrew. There are many more examples of a trend I'm trying to point to -- indeed, a google search of "What White People Like" will also bring you to sites like Black People Love Us, a site I was already aware of because a hip friend had shared it with me several months ago. A good friend and his hip friend constantly refer to each other as honkies, and have for years.

So where does the soap box part come in? I want to put this succinctly, clearly. It seems to me what one couldn't call anything other than a trend, and what I'll call especially a trend specific to hip, (or would-be hip) white, college-educated often urban dwelling folks, has developed: ostensible (and that word is important here) white self-mockery achieved through defining white stereotypes (of a certain class, more on this later) but, perhaps more importantly, also perpetuating black ones across the web (2.0) and in the ever decreasing phenomenon, real life. I have zero respect for or interest in political correctness, so I'm no offended by any of these sites or cards, what have you, as such, especially in isolation. What troubles me is that this trend (these "white people" sites and cards) is perhaps not what it purports to be.

Allow me to explain. Nerds often like to make fun of themselves for being nerds, especially when they've gone to fancy schools (like I did) in similar company. These are not the nerds from the Revenge of the Nerds. These are, generally, economically advantaged nerds who relish in their nerdiness, knowing that they aren't really making fun of themselves at all when they do so, but actually subversively talking about how awesome they are (because it is, afterall, both cool and of socio-economic importance as an adult to be a nerd, so-to-speak). I don't have a huge problem with the phenomenon; I'm guilty of it myself.

What I do have a problem with is when the same idea is turned into a black/white dichotomy, instead of a smart/not smart one. I might have been born smart, but I also read and stuff. One is born black or white. More importantly, I reject the idea that it is better to be black or white (as I think most people would when put in those terms). It would be naive to say they aren't different experiences (being black or white), but it would be undeniably racist to say it is better to be one or the other. If you look at the list of things white people like to do on the Stuff White People Like Blog -- study abroad, eat brunch, recycle, spend money on expensive sandwiches, read The Times -- these are largely things another group of people like to do: educated, and/or rich people. And yes, unless I'm completely out of touch, there are educated and/or rich black people. The thing is, when white people (full disclosure -- I'm white) make fun of themselves in these terms, they're really saying, as nerds do when they make fun of themselves as nerds, that they're better than black people.

People feel good about themselves when they study abroad, recycle, order imported cheeses on their sandwiches and read the Times; they think they are better than people who do not do these things (don't deny this; you're lying to yourself if you do). The implication is that white people do these things and black (I should say other races, but I think this whole phenomenon is setup more as a black and white thing, so maybe I should stick with that) people don't; according to this logic white people are better than black people.
I don't think this is what is intended, but I think, if we're honest with ourselves, it is at least part of what is accomplished.

So while everyone is busy these days making observations and drawing conclusions and theories on what white people like to do, I'd like to go on the record, as the self-declared living expert on cilantro hate ( still hasn't posted any news since early September), as saying this: There is absolutely no correlation between cilantro love or hate and race (both Oprah magazine and Gourmet feature cilantro recipes prominently). Because it is, however, a known fact that cilantro lovers are morons, there might in fact be a correlation between hipsterdom and cilantro love, and there might be an association between hipness and whiteness, but any conclusions you want to draw out of these correlations, I assure you I don't mean them as false or subversive insults.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Funny Thing: When I Say Cilantro, I Actually Mean Cilantro

Went to dinner with a few former foodie work colleagues Friday. We went to New York's (consciously) coolest new restaurant, The Smith (owned and operated by the folks at Jane, where I worked for a period of time, and the Neptune Room, where I didn't). First let me be clear about something: the food at The Smith is very very good, at least what we had, which, as is the joy of dining with 3 or more food enthusiasts eager to try and share, was a decent cross-section of the medium-sized menu. Brian Ellis, a chef worthy of serious respect, delivers a casual (casual in a New York way where blue cheese fondue is not taken for mysterious but instead for granted, here smothering house-made potato chips in a decadent dish that is actually better than it sounds (and trashier)). The short ribs are killer, the mac and cheese is real good, the list goes on. It's a good restaurant. But this isn't meant to be a review of the restaurant, but a gripe I have with service in general (and I empathize, I worked as one).

The Smith has an avocado salad with chipotle vinaigrette. I asked the server after my friend ordered the salad (we're sharing everything remember) "Does the avocado salad have any cilantro?" He said, "No, it doesn't." I said, "OK, cool, cuz I really really hate it." He said something like, don't worry about it. Fast forward some mac and cheese and potato chips later, arrives avocado salad with large leafy pieces of herb. I'm in a high state of alert and simultaneous indifference (I'm having so much fun with those goddamn delicious chips) about this leafy herb.

*I'd like to say that the visually suspicious herb dotting the otherwise beautiful, simple salad was actually parsley, but, self-fulfilling prophecy be damned, this was, no-doubt-about-it cilantro. If I wanted to be positive here, and I will again for a moment because I do like the restaurant, at least it was in huge pieces that could be avoided (much how Mario Batali always cuts his garlic in large pieces for those who don't like it (but who doesn't like garlic?)). But in fairness, I did ask in an unmistakable and polite enough way.

See the thing that has me annoyed here is that there's no shame in asking the kitchen a question if you aren't sure about a question a difficult or not difficult diner has asked. If I ask a yes or no question, in life in general, but let's start with food and restaurants, the acceptable answers are "yes" (which means yes), "no" (which means no) or, "I'm actually not sure, I'll find out," (which means I'll come back with an informed yes, no, or actually in this case there is no yes or no answer (although in answering the "Is there cilantro in this?" question there is always a yes or no answer)).

The answer to these questions, see, is sort of irrelevant. It points, I'm sure, to a larger issue I take with the idea of testimony, with truth, with knowledge. We all give inaccurate information to other people, inadvertently, from time to time. But, maybe one of the things that's important to know is what's important to know. So, for instance, when you're a waiter, it's important to know what's in food or to know when you don't. Then again, other people would argue and say what's important is to know how to kiss not just one kind, but all kinds of asses (Guess which kind of waiter I knew how to be). That's why I give this guy and other's like him some slack; everyone wants something different out of you and what you probably want is a part in a play, an audition for anything, a clue as to what it is you want or how to go after it and get it -- that is, not to kiss asses or tell people what's in their food.

But inasmuch as what I think and what I want matters, I want to ask "Is there cilantro in this?" and get an answer that corresponds to, you know, whether or not there's cilantro in it. I can say, with absolute assurance, however, that there is no (at least to date) cilantro in The Smith's very excellent potato chips with blue cheese fondue and that avocado salad, with some careful maneuvering, was actually really good.

* Cilantro left, parsley right: valuable tool for waiters everywhere.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Shiva: More than Sitting

Jewish Friend whose mother has just died: Erin, don't you run out of ideas for your i hate cilantro blog?

Erin: No, check this out -- shiva: cilantro-free.

JFWMHJD: Got it.

Here's one thing the world's great religions (by great religions I mean the ones I like, not the ones that are big; see, as I carry a minor in religion I'm equipped to have these sorts of opinions) have in common, despite seemingly limitless differences: they realize the importance of food and drink in not only everyday life, but especially in major life events, as part of the mourning process very much included.

Last week I attended my first shiva and before going, everyone that mentioned the event and their experiences with them in the past pointed to exactly one thing and nothing else: food. At shiva there will always and forever be copious amounts of food. Is it, we wondered, somehow irreverent to serve a hoagie on such an occasion, as one friend had seen during his grandfather's shiva? Well, what is it that somehow makes casserole more holy than a hoagie, another friend questioned. Good point. And who doesn't love hoagies?

Upon arrival at my friend's home last week, I did immediately notice a wide and diverse spread of food. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the large boxes of coffee sitting next to the handles of single malt Scotch. You gotta figure, everyone wants one or the other (or both). Then, on to the food: mixed green salad with nuts, fruit, cheese and an impressively emulsified balsamic vinaigrette (on the side); lots of bread; grilled vegetables; cold cuts and cheeses; cake; gluten-free cupcakes; cookies (full of gluten); Whole Foods' mezze platter; macaroons; fruit; no hoagies. In this diverse spread, what was, to me (and I'm quite certain no one else), noticeably missing was cilantro, or any food that might reasonably contain it.

According to the McCormick "Enspicelopedia": "Ancient Hebrews added Cilantro to an herb mixture in the ritual of Passover." According to my modern-day Jewish friends whom I've consulted on the issue, what with their constant reading of the Torah, obsession with regular temple attendance and relentless shunning of bacon, experts on and representatives of Jews everywhere, cilantro really has no presence in foods traditionally (read currently) eaten during rituals like Passover, Hanukkah, etc. While a lack of cilantro might not save the Jewish cuisine from crimes like Gefilte fish, I never met a latke I didn't like and even the most ardent cilantro supporter might agree that cilantro's presence would bastardize and ruin the perfect condiment vehicle that is the latke.

See, the thing is, that as unmitigatedly sad/tragic/existentially unnerving as death is, especially to those closest to it (friends are just sort of fumblingly along for the ride) I conjecture, to me it isn't religion's ability to really alleviate any of this through its dogma, theology or words of wisdom. Instead, it's its insistence that one eats, that one's friends bring and prepare the food that one eats. That it is through this bringing and preparing of food that people are able to show, in some small measure, that they care. And that, yes, in the case of my first experience with shiva, this food is not only ample and diverse but provides no unwanted herbal distractions from the matter at hand -- eating, searching for the right words.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Red, White and Green

As the primaries are in full swing and the fates of many, indeed the whole nation as some of these pundits keep insisting, are on the line, this Super Tuesday's got me thinking: if cilantro were a presidential candidate, which one would it be.

To review, some things I think about cilantro, and why I hate it:

It's the skunk of the earth, it's everywhere, it's completely overwhelming, it makes me uncomfortable in restaurants and people love it but I don't (I feel ostracized).

1) Skunk of the earth: This is a tough one. Distinguishing between many politicians and general skunk of the earthiness is no easy feat, but for me, the skunkiest of them all is Mike Huckabee -- pretty much everything he has to say leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

2) It's everywhere: Easy one. John McCain. Everywhere. The Times reports today that his media coverage is killing the competition (quantity, not necessarily quality (although, as a digression, this whole liberal slant of the media thing is total bullshit)), including the two democratic contenders, Obama and Clinton, or as I would have it Obama Obama Obama Obama Obama Obama Obama Obama and Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton.

3) Completely overwhelming: Another easy one: Alan Keyes. But, if we're limiting the list to candidates who have a shot in hell of their party's nomination, gotta go with Huckabee again on this one. While Obama may overplay the message of hope, or what I like to think of as the audacity of the audacity of hope, Huckabee insists on actually hailing from Hope, Arkansas -- it's just too literal for me. Ease up dude.

4) It makes me uncomfortable in restaurants: Look, my most effective defense in avoiding my discomfort when having to avoid certain kinds of restaurants, dishes or make a special point to have the server check with the kitchen (and very often then back with wrong information) would be to somehow decrease the amount of cilantro that's around. Now this leads me to the immigration issue. We all know cilantro's proliferation is, if nothing else, but one byproduct of unchecked and uncontrolled immigration, it being largely found in Indian, Latin American and various Asian cuisines.* It is therefore Barack Obama who would make me most uncomfortable in restaurants, intentionally or inadvertently further increasing cilantro's presence in restaurants across the country through his lax immigration policies and cosmopolitan upbringing. But, then again, to paraphrase Voltaire, I disagree passionately with your cilantro herb usage and hence assault on my palate, but I'll fight til the death your right to, you know, cook the food you want to eat in a country you want to eat it in.

5) People love it and I don't: McCain. He's gonna win the primary, heard it hear first** Lot's of folks like him because, to quote some lady from a swing state on the times audio commentary today, he's a centrist. A lot of people think cilantro is just sort of a fresh, pleasant, citrusy, summery herb. But these people are wrong. Like cilantro, McCain's danger is in seeming so neutral, so friendly, like such a good guy that's going to unite the country and personify the inner would-be veteran in all of us. Not so. Not so.

In the end, the 1-2 punch of McCain's everywhere-ness and counter intuitive popularity I think make it (excuse me, him) most like cilantro. If cilantro went up in a race against my favorite candidates (I'll call Hillary tarragon [divisive, great in small doses, serious] and Obama Thai basil [worldly in an approachable way, fresh, full of hope***) he'd have a shot in hell of winning (unlike Huckabee, who I might like less but who is less of a threat -- I'd rather eat cilantro than hot cow dung, but hot cow dung doesn't present problems when I go to eat out or to a friend's dinner party since they don't like hot cow dung either) and I really just don't have the time to write another hate blog.

Go vote!

*This is a joke used for purely rhetorical purposes. I support melting pots and salad bowls and immigration and all that.
**Also a joke.
***Also a joke.