Why Does Cilantro Taste Like Soap To Some People?

iStock
iStock

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 Are We So Scared of Clowns?

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

With the recent box office-smashing success of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explained the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

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Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

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