I can still remember the first time I tasted cilantro. It was in this tiny Vietnamese restaurant in California. I’d traveled there from Maine for a prestigious musical competition. I was sitting there with my dear friend and bandmate trying my best to appear sophisticated as she suggested delicacies for us to order.
Noelle was always a lot more chic than I was. She had an incredible sense of style. Was often informed about music and historical facts that I wasn’t. So of course she’d had Vietnamese food before and had well-formed opinions on it, and I hadn’t.
As always, I felt a bit lesser. Like a bit of a baby. But I did my best to mask it.
And when our pho course came, I remember raising the soup spoon to my mouth, expecting an explosion of deliciousness, when I was instead greeted with… a mouthful of soap.
Blech blech blech.
Turns out, folks, I have that gene that ensures that cilantro tastes soapy. At the time, I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of cilantro, let alone tasted it. I just tasted soap and looked over at my friend, who was happily slurping down pho. So I hid my grimace and smiled. Ate some more of this incredibly soapy soup.
At that moment, a tiny lap dog bolted out of the kitchen. The owner ran after this dog, flustered. She made us promise to tell no one that dog was there. And in exchange for our silence, she would comp our meal.
(Note to any would-be health department inspectors: This was in the late 90s, so I have no idea what the restaurant was called. Or even what city it was in. It probably isn’t even open anymore since it’s been so long, and the pandemic hurt the industry.)
We laughed and enjoyed our free meal. She enjoyed hers for real (I think) and I half-pretended to (the stuff without cilantro tasted great to me).
Cilantro Still Tastes Like Soap to Me… But Now I Like It
A little while back, my partner and I decided to do one of those DNA kits you mail in. We were curious about our ancestry — his geneaological records were basically non-existent. My family doesn’t have formal records per se (I come from lowbrow peasant stock, and I’m a second-generation immigrant, so it’s not exactly like I have highfalutin pedigree papers). But they are very confident about our background. However, I’d been watching a lot of videos where folks were told one thing and their DNA said another. So I was prepared to be pretty shocked.
As it turned out, no, my origin was exactly as I was told — I’m predominantly French-Canadian (mine presented as French plus Native American) with a touch of Irish (I have one grandma who is very Irish, and that’s basically what came out). This was perhaps the most shocking outcome for me, the lack of surprises. I’d been prepared for one.
Conversely, my partner’s results were wild. Lots of surprises there. Although on the other hand, I suppose it’s not that surprising because there weren’t good records.
Anyway, we’d also ordered the health/personality trait info and were amused by how close those results were. And then we got to the cilantro gene, and my partner was surprised. “Wait, a second,” they said. “You have the cilantro-hating gene?”
“Yes,” I said. “It tastes like soap to me.”
“But you put cilantro on things!” he said.
I shrugged. “I guess I’ve learned to like the soapy flavor.”
It’s not just cilantro that I didn’t like at first but love now. I didn’t have a natural taste for alcohol or coffee, but I enjoy both. Hilariously, the DNA panel said that I am also a supertaster and am quite sensitive to bitter, so it would seem that bitter things taste extra bitter to me too. Instead of avoiding them, I have developed an affinity to bitter.
My partner despises bitter tastes (doesn’t drink coffee or like certain vegetables that strike him as bitter)… but doesn’t have that genetic sensitivity to bitter. We were so amused by this that we actually got the testing strips to confirm — they tasted like nothing to my partner but tasted like grass stains to me, confirming our results.
And as I thought over the situation, I realized a lot of things have been like that — I used to be really sensitive to rejection. I went on a quest to get better at handling rejection. (I don’t exactly like it these days but tolerate it a lot better than I used to.)
I’m not someone who was naturally polyamorous. I thought I’d hate it, went into it trying to prove a point (that I’d hate it), and then discovered I really liked it a lot more in reality than I had in theory, so I did the work to make it sustainable for me. Yes, I know that’s an unusual path for someone who would become an educator on consensually non-monogamous relationships — but I think it also helps me have a unique perspective that’s valuable.
You Don’t Have to Learn to Like Things You Hate
Look, before anyone jumps on me here, I want to be clear about something: No one is saying you have to learn to like things you hate. You don’t. It’s your life. I’m not the boss of you — nor is any random person on the Internet being a troll.
But today I’m struck with a pattern about myself — that I’ve consistently learned to like things I hate at first. And that this is especially true when I like other aspects of the experience. The non-soapy bits of that first pho were delicious. So there was a reason for me to learn to like the cilantro. (Yes, I could ask that it not be added to my food or whatever — but this ensured that I’d be fine even if someone messed up my custom order request.)
I loved the energy I got from caffeine — and drinking something warm every morning was strangely comforting. And I loved that I’d feel so grown up when my grandmother and I would drink coffee together. So I learned to enjoy the bitter part of that experience, too.
And c’mon. Everyone knows how fun alcohol can be when consumed in moderation. (It’s a common substance of addiction for a reason.) So I learned to enjoy the taste.
And frankly, I think that tendency has served me well when I’m working on more esoteric things — like delaying gratification or doing personal growth projects. Because the path to fantastic new experiences is often paved with obnoxious parts you must tolerate — or potentially even learn to enjoy.