Harold McGee, "Cilantro Haters, It's Not Your Fault". April 13
I'M BUSY, but it's mostly Kabuki. I did the lawnmower kabuki yesterday evening; I've been doing the new lighting kabuki for a week now, with only stylized success; I'll have to kabuki the hibachi, as soon as I get an hibachi.
I think I've mentioned my friend Cowboy Clint before, a real working cowboy who'd been forced to relocate to the midwest after a Class B Felony Messing with Texas beef one drunken night, who experienced the Urban Cowboy contagion personally, not just metaphorically: he had to change his entire wardrobe or look like a Disco refugee. (I had to give up cigars twenty years ago, when the likes of California's health-nut governor started smoking them as symbols of the trendy Non-PC kabuki, and how massive wealth gave you the right to spit in everyone else's face, but that's not nearly the same.) Sort of thing happens with language all the time; particularly, in politics, with the lamentable death-by-overuse-and-unlettered-semantic-shift of the once-useful spin. It happens often enough--as in constantly--that it ought go unremarked. Or, assuming you are Slate, to have the unremarkability remarked upon:
It may seem P.C. or peevish to ask writers to resist kabuki. (Is Kabuki resistance itself Kabuki?) The request is impractical, I admit
But how would you feel if your favorite art form, ballet or truckers' quilts, say, became another nation's derogatory epithet? How many Americans today steer clear of actual Kabuki (it is regularly performed here) because of the word's reputation?
I'm guessing "none".
If pesto is Out, bring us two orders of what's In! (Missed a segue, there, but nobody bats 1000.) If this sort of thing is a problem, it'll self-correct, because the same overusers are the same mid-craze adaptors ready to kill what's next via unreflective overexposure. It's more disturbing by several orders of magnitude that some Slate-y arbiter of political phrasemaking still uses "P.C." to mean "raising niggling objections" thirty years after that one was driven off the rails.
But Lackman's real point, or "point", is not that kabuki should be banished for Incipient Trendiness Wasting Disease, nor Overuse by the Unfashionably Middle-Aged, but that it's being misused altogether:
Health care reform recently brought Kabuki to mind for both Rush Limbaugh—"what you have here is 'Kabuki theater' "—and New York Times columnist Frank Rich: "[I]f I were to place an incautious bet on which political event will prove the most significant of February 2010, I wouldn't choose the kabuki health care summit." For The New Yorker's George Packer, all the capital's a Far Eastern stage, and all its men and women merely players. "I looked for answers outside the Kabuki theatre of Washington personalities."
Pundits use Kabuki as a synonym for "posturing." The New Republic's Michael Crowley, for example, has defined it as a "performance, in which nothing substantive is done." But there's nothing "kabuki" about the real Kabuki. Kabuki, I'll have you know, is one of UNESCO's Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity! And it's nothing like politics. It does indeed use stylized gestures, expressions, and intonations, but it's far from empty and monotonous.
Well, the Healthcare Summit, e.g., may have been monotonous--like everything more complicated that a Tweet in some circles--but it wasn't empty, either. To me (pace Rush and Packer) its use has always referred to Kabuki dance, stylized movements which can be read by the knowledgeable, but are incomprehensible, or easily misconstrued, by everyone else. Limbaugh and Rich might easily help kill the thing through overuse, but mindlessness (and I wouldn't say either is de facto wrong, above) is strictly on them.
The fat lady has to sing before the opera's over, a delightful, useful, and, yes, overused folk observation which hasn't affected my enjoyment of 19th century musical theatre one whit. It's a sort of cultural enallage, where the effective but incorrect grammatical form ("We was robbed!") is replaced by a comic Philistinism. Kabuki is a stylized mishmash to yer average American. Even your above-average American. And the last people on earth who have a right to take offense at some other culture's portrayal of them are the Japanese.
Where'd I put that segue? Anyhow:
FOOD partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party.
Well, I am still working on my food blog…
Culinary sophistication is no guarantee of immunity from cilantrophobia. In a television interview in 2002, Larry King asked Julia Child which foods she hated. She responded: “Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs, they have kind of a dead taste to me.”
“So you would never order it?” Mr. King asked.
“Never,” she responded. “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”
God bless that woman, and would she'd lived to be 200. (There's a greeting card my neighbors sent me hanging on the fridge now, with her wonderful line "It's so beautifully arranged on the plate you just know someone's fingers have been all over it".) She overstates the case against, ahem, roquette, no doubt due to the power of sledgehammer trendiness….
[Which reminds me. I have to travel two miles to the specialty birdfeeding store to get plain suet. There are fourteen different suets at the grocery store, and they all read like salsas Rachael Ray's production staff spitballed. Blueberry Mango. Peanut Graham. Cilantro.]
But if anything she lets cilantro off far too easy. Throwing it on the floor would mean you could still smell it. Cilantro should be taken immediately to the dumpster, and a note pinned to the thing apologizing to the garbage man. It's the chef who should be hurled to the floor.
And look, yes indeedy, I don't care for the smell. But I've made my own curries, I make my own sausage, I've et three-year-old goat cheese. It's not the vile reek, whether or not that's genetically or culturally affected; it's the goddam incontinent use, which is wedded to, and symbolic of, the rampant food idiocy which holds that food--and, worse, every fucking dish on the table--is supposed not so much to be seasoned as wrestled to the ground and lemon-cilantro-peppersprayed into submission. Alberto Moravia once remarked that, while the ratio of literacy to illiteracy was constant, nowadays the illiterates can read; and nowadays the ham-fisted imagine they are producing something edible, like the kid who imagines burning ants with a magnifying glass makes him a research biologist.
Helen Leach, an anthropologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, has traced unflattering remarks about cilantro flavor and the bug etymology — not endorsed by modern dictionaries —
May we just note here that, so far as we are aware, no lexicographers dabble in ethnography?
back to English garden books and French farming books from around 1600, when medieval dishes had fallen out of fashion. She suggests that cilantro was disparaged as part of a general effort to define the new European table against the flavors of the old.
So, cilantro was unfairly banned 400 years ago? Explains why my neighbor put four centuries' worth of the stuff in that salsa he made.
The senses of smell and taste evolved to evoke strong emotions, [Dr. Jay Gottfried, neuroscientist] 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.
Well, except, of course, that crawly insects and dirt have been on the menu for several million years. And if you're thinking of putting cilantro, which is Greek for "Mediterranean Death Herb" by the way, in my salad, I'll just have the Lemon Pledge instead.