Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap To Some People?

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by Sophie Harrington

Surprisingly controversial, cilantro (or coriander, as it's known in other parts of the world) has sparked a level of vitriol unheard of amongst other herbs. From the online community at IHateCilantro.com to the “I hate coriander. Worst herb ever” Facebook group, it might be the most polarizing leaf in the culinary world. What is it about cilantro that makes some people describe it as tasting like soapy pennies, moldy shoes, and cat pee, while others rave about its fresh flavor?

Despite being well liked in many other cultures, cilantro has historically been a controversial herb in the western kitchen. It produces a specific subset of aldehydes, organic compounds that can provide highly pungent odors when highly expressed. It’s these aldehydes that are most likely responsible for the soapy taste and smell many people associate with cilantro. Yet these aldehydes also provide the fresh, citrusy aroma that others rave about. So why are some people unable to taste the good side of cilantro?

Disliking cilantro isn’t a recent phenomenon. In a 2001 paper, University of Otago anthropologist Helen Leach found that cilantro was treated as an unwanted herb in European cuisine from the 16th century onward, and very often disparaged for its foul taste and smell.

Leach suggests that this dislike may have stemmed from a misleading interpretation of the word’s etymology, itself stemming from the Greek koris, for bug. Sharing a similar shape to bedbugs, the newly unpopular herb may have been associated with their foul smell. This negative association may have been enough to enhance the less palatable flavors in cilantro, leading Victorians to turn their noses up at the herb.

The use of cilantro in many non-western forms of cooking may have fed into long-standing European stereotypes. By associating cilantro with unclean, fetid bedbugs, many forms of non-western cuisine were tarred in association. It was not until after World War II, when it became fashionable to try new cuisines at restaurants and even branch out in the kitchen at home, that cilantro begin to re-enter the western culinary canon.

A study by Lilli Mauer and Ahmed El-Sohemy at the University of Toronto found that while 17 percent of Caucasians disliked the taste of cilantro, only 4 percent of Hispanics and 3 percent of people of Middle Eastern descent disliked the herb. Mexican cuisine, for example, is known to make full use of the herb and it's a staple spice in many Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisines, too. These groups similarly appear to be those least likely to dislike it. Perhaps growing up eating cilantro is enough to gain immunity to its less palatable aromas and tastes.

This might seem like vindication to those who suggest a dislike of cilantro is just being fussy, but more recent studies have found specific genetic differences associated with the taste. A study by the personal genomics company 23andMe identified a small DNA variation in a cluster of olfactory receptor genes that is strongly associated with the perception of a “soapy” taste in cilantro. This may be traced to the OR6A2 gene, an olfactory receptor able to bind many of the aldehydes implicated in the herb's very particular smell. Perhaps those with a specific variation in the gene are particularly sensitive to its soapiness.

Studies on twins have also bolstered the suggestion that cilantro preference has a genetic component. Preliminary research by Charles Wysocki at the Monell Chemical Senses Center suggests that while 80 percent of identical twins share similar taste profiles for cilantro, only 42 percent of fraternal twins do. If the genetic component does play a significant role, it may be that certain cultures are predisposed to use cilantro in the cooking because they’re genetically predisposed to like it, rather than the other way around.

That’s some good news for cilantro-phobes at least, since no one can blame you for your genes. Still, it doesn’t make the horror of accidentally getting a bite of the green stuff any more bearable for them.

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Why Do Students Get Summers Off?

Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images
Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images

It’s commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the 19th century so that they’d have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is, it isn’t true. Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky—and their sweaty, rich parents.

Before the Civil War, farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long—summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

But as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.

Legislators, in one of those if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em moments, started arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labor unions and the eight-hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. From there, they argued that students shouldn’t go to school year-round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 schooldays from the most sweltering part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern so they wouldn’t fall behind. Business folks obviously saw an opportunity here. The summer vacation biz soon ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.

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Where Did the Term Brownie Points Come From?

bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

In a Los Angeles Times column published on March 15, 1951, writer Marvin Miles observed a peculiar phrase spreading throughout his circle of friends and the social scene at large. While standing in an elevator, he overheard the man next to him lamenting “lost brownie points.” Later, in a bar, a friend of Miles's who had stayed out too late said he would never “catch up” on his brownie points.

Miles was perplexed. “What esoteric cult was this that immersed men in pixie mathematics?” he wrote. It was, his colleagues explained, a way of keeping “score” with their spouses, of tallying the goodwill they had accrued with the “little woman.”

Over the decades, the phrase brownie points has become synonymous with currying favor, often with authority figures such as teachers or employers. So where exactly did the term come from, and what happens when you “earn” them?

The most pervasive explanation is that the phrase originated with the Brownies, a subsect of the Girl Scouts who were encouraged to perform good deeds in their communities. The Brownies were often too young to be official Girl Scouts and were sometimes the siblings of older members. Originally called Rosebuds in the UK, they were renamed Brownies when the first troops were being organized in 1916. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, who had formed the Boy Scouts and was asked to name this new Girl Scout division, dubbed them Brownies after the magical creatures of Scottish folklore that materialized to selflessly help with household chores.

But the Brownies are not the only potential source. In the 1930s, kids who signed up to deliver magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal from Curtis Publishing were eligible for vouchers labeled greenies and brownies that they could redeem for merchandise. They were not explicitly dubbed brownie points, but it’s not hard to imagine kids applying a points system to the brownies they earned.

The term could also have been the result of wartime rationing in the 1940s, where red and brown ration points could be redeemed for meats.

The phrase didn’t really seem to pick up steam until Miles's column was published. In this context, the married men speaking to Miles believed brownie points could be collected by husbands who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, stopped to pick up the dry cleaning, mailed letters, and didn’t spend long nights in pubs speaking to newspaper columnists. The goal, these husbands explained, was never to get ahead; they merely wanted to be considered somewhat respectable in the eyes of their wives.

Later, possibly as a result of its usage in print, grade school students took the phrase to mean an unnecessary devotion to teachers in order to win them over. At a family and faculty meeting at Leon High in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, earning brownie points was said to be a serious problem. Also called apple polishing, it prompted other students in class to shame their peers for being friendly to teachers. As a result, some were “reluctant to be civil” for fear they would be harassed for sucking up.

In the decades since that time, the idiom has become attached to any act where goodwill can be expected in return, particularly if it’s from someone in a position to reward the act with good grades or a promotion. As for Miles: the columnist declared his understanding of brownie points came only after a long night of investigation. Arriving home late, he said, rendered him “pointless.”

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