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Archive for the ‘Cilantro Love’ Category

Sometimes things like our jobs, personal relationships, and constant inner-monologues get in the way of what really matters: blogging. Dear readers, I apologize and will not soon let you down again.

The other night I had dinner, a subtle euphemism for blog fodder, with a good friend, her visiting-New York Latin lover (who loves being called that) and my, what I think it is now officially safe to call him, boyfriend. We went to a place called Graffiti, a joy of a dining experience if you’re in the area and are open to not-so-much weird food, as much as weird food combinations, most of which work. From the moment the sweet watermelon balanced perfectly with the salty feta, and cool mint hit my impatient mouth…just kidding–I hate that kind of food writing: the watermelon with feta and mint sorbet tasted awesome. So did a lot of other things.

The chef, Jehangir Mehta, earned accolades as a pastry chef at Jean Georges and some other places that also matter, as it were. We met him quickly (the restaurant is very small) and not sure of what to choose, asked him if he would just send out some stuff. “Allergies, restrictions?,” he appropriately and kindly inquired. “I hate cilantro,” I said, but added: “But I know you’re rocking the Asian thing and I wouldn’t want to destroy the integrity of your cuisine; let’s keep dishes that feature cilantro to a minimum, but do what you must do.” And so he sent lots of stuff out (Graffiti is a small plates concept) and I was impressed that foie gras made the cut; there are people who wouldn’t have been pleased with the assumption involved. I was very pleased.

A pleasant chickpea flour-crusted skate arrived somewhere in the middle of our degustation. What it was served with I don’t really remember except that it tasted good. And also Mehta, bless his heart, brought the cilantro-cumin yogurt on the side. “Mostly it’s cumin,” he suggested, and rightly so. Some waiters will tell you that you won’t really notice the cilantro. This really pisses me off. I will notice the cilantro, while you will not. See, we’re different people with different tongues and everything. (It’s like telling a die-hard right-to-lifer not to sweat the ‘morning after pill’: it’s just a hypothetical, mini abortion, you see) But Mehta was right. Notice the cilantro? Yeah, cuz there was cilantro in it. But, and I’m getting more and more freaked out by this, I didn’t hate it.


I attribute this largely to context. Mehta was explaining the restaurant concept to my ever-inquisitive, ever-gregarious boyfriend using words like “our living room,” “inviting,” “eclectic,” and phrases like “graffiti is an international art and our cuisine is internatio
nal” to explain the restaurant’s name. But when you name a thing a thing, (a restaurant, a movie, a book, what have you) while your intention and inspiration is valid and, perhaps, interesting or amusing, the audience–diners in this case–gets to interpret the name how they want. I think graffiti and I think punk, as in the punk “Fuck you” or rather “Fuck the man” or rather “Fuck everyone” attitude. Mehta certainly doesn’t have that attitude but his cuisine’s irreverence toward the status quo, toward tired flavors, toward the stuffiness often associated with food as good (if not as inventive) is very punk indeed (by the way, Mehta has a fun quirk of saying “Thank you very much indeed,” whenever you complement his food, or restaurant, which comes across as super genuine and hence super charming).


Anyway, I think because we had all signed up, so-to-speak, for this punk experience (I’m not sure pork-abstaining Latin Lover was ever informed he was eating pork), my palate was more willing to be assaulted than normal. I was so happy Mehta had taken the trouble to put it on the side, I figured I’d give it a taste. Cumin’s a flavor I’ve come to really like, although I associate it with Rachel Ray, so I was cool with that, and because it’s such a warm, if you will, flavor, the very little bit of (soapy) cilantro did cool it down. Now, I wouldn’t say I liked it, because I didn’t, but I appreciated it and said, for a moment “Fuck you” to my cilantro hate. But mostly I appreciated Mehta’s relentless sweetness and attention to detail.

The skate with cumin-cilantro yogurt certainly didn’t come anywhere close to converting me, but it was a nice reminder that cilantro lovers, while morons, can be very nice folks indeed.
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One of the great things about vocally, perhaps pathologically hating cilantro is people are constantly offering cilantro anecdotes, testimonies, periodical features of interest. Many of these tidbits aren’t SO interesting after all, but some of them are.

My dear friend (I was going to call her “best friend” but didn’t want to step on any toes cuz for real I have several “best” friends. Then I thought “BFF” because it’s amusing as hell to me but I thought something in the intended tone might be lost on my audience: many of you I know like cilantro, and we all know what that means about your IQ.) and roommate has just moved to Rome/Cairo. She’s been in Cairo a few weeks now and one of the first things she tells me is she is surrounded by Cilantro. No, not the herb, the fucking cafe.

I know. As if. Well, apparently this chain of cafes is as ubiquitous in Cairo as suicidal cab drivers. The cafes, Dear Friend tells me, have internet connections, nice amenities, a quiet, relaxed ambiance and, you know, allow women. In other words, this is a Western-style chain standing in direct opposition to the segregated, loud, cheap and dirty ahwas, traditional Egyptian coffee shops.


It goes without saying that this is an outrage, but alas, Cilantro Cafe is but one of many businesses masquerading as restaurants with the audacity (or I’m sure what they all think of as hip, or edgy or just plain clever idea) to bear the name “Cilantro.” It’s not surprising with all the restaurants in the world some are bound to be named Cilantro; naming restaurants after food is pretty common (and stupid, if you ask me — thanks for asking) and cilantro, as we’ve established many times over, is everywhere.

What’s upsetting is that the biggest chain of coffee shops in all of Cairo is named after my nemesis. Or is it? I mean, is it really a term of distinction to be a coffee shop chain? Is it really so awesome to be the very Egyptian icon of Westernization and cultural atrophy? Dear Friend tells me she’d never spend any time there, that she’d really prefer to hang at the ahwas, but damnit, honky needs her wireless connection and the ice cubes next door might make her sick. Then there’s also the issue that she isn’t really allowed in those “realer” places, having tits and all. So, on that front Cilantro represents progress, of the good sort that creates the eponymous noun liberals prefer to call themselves; they allow women.

I have a tremendous amount of patience for other cultures, mostly because I recognize after 25 years in the US of America one I don’t know that culture is the kind of thing one can ever understand, but more to the point, I don’t like to be too judgmental — do whatever you want, please don’t kill my dog (I don’t have a dog). I have serious problems with religion, but, that’s with all of them, not a particular one. Most of my problems are rooted in the fact that people do irrational things that are objectively bad for themselves and everyone around them in the name of a god or spirit or faith that they don’t know exists. Yeah. That sounds a lot like a judgment to me too. Anyway, some of the worst forms of what I don’t like about religion involve violences and injustices against women, a group I’m (on the whole) pretty fond of. Genital mutilation (ha, you thought you were reading a cilantro blog), anti-birth control policies and a general limitation of that great word W loves to throw around — freedom — are but a few nuisances women have had to endure at the hands of “their” religions. Exclusion from public cafes would be another.

So, while I’m down with dirt and noise and all those authentic things Western travelers like to tell themselves they like so they can have authentic experiences, in the end I value the kind of progress that allows a woman to order a fucking cup of coffee. And if that kind of place goes by the name Cilantro…. Point for cilantro.

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There’s so much fodder in any given issue of the New York Times, it’s a wonder I ever get around to reading anything else. It’s not that it’s the best publication out there for news or anything else, far from it, but they’ve mastered the ability to hook me with one story or another before the break and it remains my homepage of years despite consistent urges to change it (I’m reading Into the Wild — it’s bound to have some effect).

I think of the New York Times as a website first and newspaper second, not that these are mutually exclusive things, certainly not in this milieu. I think of the [New York Times] magazine as a magazine because I generally read it in print. Anyway, I love the New York Times as website. I look at the slide shows, watch Mark Bittman’s videos and enjoy the “Most Popular” emailed, blogged and searched articles for quick ideas of where to head next. These are all features made possible by the Times as website phenomenon, features I like.

It is through this interface that I read today’s “A House Not for Mere Mortals.” Awkward headline aside, I’ve been transfixed by the text-based article and audio slide show all morning. To sort of summarize, this apparently important couple has built this house in East Hampton. It’s hyper-colorful, very “open,” and, probably most notably, has a strange undulating, bumpy, moon-like floor throughout. The basic idea of the place, as I read and hear it, is to make dwellers uncomfortable. That through discomfort, trying to find our balance, etc., we remain young and vital. Ms. Gins, the woman in the couple, says, “It’s immoral that people have to die.” I think that’s absurd, it’s neither moral nor immoral that people have to die, it is a fact of nature completely detached from any reasonable sense of morality, but I digress. The point is these folks seems to think it is through challenge, discomfort, whatever you want to call it, that we remain young and stay alive.

While I don’t find death immoral I do have a vested interest in staying alive (never argue with Darwin — you will lose). I prefer to be comfortable than uncomfortable, (I like Pumas more than stilettos) but I get what they’re saying, I think, at least in a way that someone who more-or-less accepts that she will die one day can “get” what they’re saying. One of my favorite things — learning stuff — is an inherently uncomfortable process. Few things are more uncomfortable than tackling the unknown, whether that be organic chemistry, Excel spreadsheets, German philosophy or, in the case of Into the Wild‘s Chris McCandless, the Alaskan wilderness. (It is worth noting that he died in his pursuit of the uncomfortable.) But many of these uncomfortable things, challenging things, yield the most intellectually, spiritually or otherwise insightful results. Yes, I suppose many of us thrive on adversity, on difficulty, on trying to find our balance.

This of course got me to thinking about my ever-growing relationship with cilantro. Now I’m not one to draw metaphors, (I have a penchant for the literal) but I’ve never shied away from drawing parallels. As I’ve written through other lenses before, this cilantro hate thing isn’t always bad. Maybe my deep passion for hating cilantro keeps me young and virile — alive even. It’s all-too easy in our culture of convenience, materialism and excess to become, well, comfortable. We ignore the world’s injustices and straight-up outrages, many at the hands of W, but more at the hands of our own unforgivable (yes immoral) selfishness, isolation and indifference. And in doing so we destroy ourselves, slowly but surely. The environment’s shit. Iraq is a quagmire of the finest order. And don’t get me started on our prison system.

I think we have a tendency, as Americans and maybe as people, to avoid conflict (except war, we like that) and to shun criticism. To complain is bad, negative. I agree in a sense. I actually quite hate complaining (of the my life is so hard variety; no, your life is probably not so hard) but a healthy dose of criticism, of questioning as I think of it, maybe I’m alone here, but I think it’s healthy, it’s good and it might just save all our lives in the long-run.

While I don’t pretend that my cilantro hate is going to save anyone’s life or even really perpetuate my own, for me, this passionate hate stirs a spirit of criticism that I like and find good, however ostensibly negative or contrary. Cilantro makes me uncomfortable. It makes me frown. It throws off my balance. Eating it makes me immediately seek homeostasis of some order (water, wine, other food, anything, please, now). In other words, eating it, musing on it, writing about it shakes things up. And shaking things up, to quote Martha Stewart, is a good thing.

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Er, uh, April Fools?

Ok. Back with a real post tomorrow.(+)*


*New thing I’m trying out whereby periods and exclamation points can be nuanced with the addition of (+) or (-) (“+” making it more exclamatory and “-” making it less exclamatory, more period-y) because I really think we need a punctuation between “.” and “!,” even if I’m the only one out there. Maybe eventually the MLA or QWERTY people or whoever decides these things can make a new symbol for me? I’d be ever so grateful.

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~

Totally Generic Grocery Store Checkout Girl: This is flat leaf parsley, right?

Cilantro-Loving Birthday Friend: Uh (rolls eyes), no; this is cilantro.

TGGSCG: Right.

~

This is the scene that had taken place in a local grocery store mere hours before my friend’s annual birthday brunch this Saturday past.

We had chilaquiles. We had fresh fruit with chili/cinnamon whipped cream. We had rugelach. We had lots of Champagne. We had, you know, a good time.

Chilaquiles (is/are?) a new dish for me. But like so many things, the moment you become familiar with the thing, the thing is everywhere — how did I not encounter these marvelous, mysterious chilaquiles before? I had my first set last weekend during a lazy, rainy Saturday brunch with a couple of friends. I had my second set at my friend’s birthday brunch on Saturday. Both were very different, both were very delicious and both, surprisingly enough, were cilantro-free.

Chilaquiles, if you aren’t familiar, involve stale corn tortillas, fried and simmered in a somewhat spicy green or red sauce then topped with things. Those things generally include queso fresca, crema, chicken and/or eggs and herbs (read cilantro). The whole dish is often served with refried beans. Variations are obviously limitless; what’s essential is the fried tortilla simmered in sauce part.

My first set of chilaquiles came from an (at least somewhat) authentic Mexican joint, so I’ll attribute the cilantro-free status of their chilaquile salsa verde to divine providence — there is simply no other way to explain such a thing. My second set of chilaquiles — the birthday brunch chilaquiles — now that’s a different story. Or is it…

As I was helping in the final stages of prepping the birthday brunch to end all birthday brunches — I’m telling you: it was great — I noticed a big bag full of green shit. And what I mean is I saw a big bag of cilantro.

~

Erin: Uh, Cilantro-Loving Birthday Friend?

CLBF: Yes, Erin

Erin: What’s the meaning of this? (points to big bag full of green shit).

CLBF: Oh, funniest thing. So (recounts grocery store interaction with TGGSCG) but, get this; it’s flat leaf parsley. Can’t even use it.

Erin: Are you out of your mind? You can put parsley on anything.

~

And so it was that we enjoyed cilantro-free chilaquiles, con parsley. And here’s what I’m thinking. While it’s obvious that Chilaquiles Set 1 was a product of divine providence I’m going to go ahead and argue that Chilaquiles Set 2 was also a product of such divine providence. To clarify, Cilantro-Loving Birthday Friend is a pretty decent cook, knows her way around the kitchen and the produce section if you know what I’m saying. For her to mix-up the two admittedly similar-looking herbs is just too unbelievable.

I’m left with only one possible conclusion to draw: God wants me to enjoy chilaquiles (which are super delicious) and God hates cilantro! More on this later.

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If you’re anything like me (first of all, God bless you — it’s messy up there, huh?) there are few things as amazing as stumbling across a movie, a book, a philosophy, anything that sort of lays it all out there in a way that not only connects seemingly disparate kinds of things and thoughts, but also does all that in a way that seems true (and you don’t know how you feel about this idea of “true” to begin with — that’s sort of what makes it special). Oprah would call that a light bulb moment; I’d call it learning something really cool, feeling a little more clued in to what’s really up.

So, in the event the foreshadowing has been inadequate, I had one of those experiences or, rather, the catalyst for one of those experiences watching Half Nelson the other day. The movie itself I really liked, but it’s this idea of dialectics that it deals with in explicit and more subversive ways that has me thinking about it still. Before the movie I really wasn’t familiar with these dialectics, but was very much attracted to how the protagonist (Mr. Dan Dunne) was teaching history — not how he was teaching high on crack, which admittedly leads to some practical problems, but that he was teaching through this dialectical lens, if you will. The lessons were dynamic and weird — I question whether the kids were getting it, but I choose to believe kids are as smart as I think they are, so I’ll give them and the movie the benefit of the doubt on that one — and I wanted to learn more about this philosophy that had gotten idealistic Dunne in such a frenzy, to both good and bad effect (to simplify: good = caring and engaging teacher; bad = self-hating drug addict with terrible personal relationships).

So, I did what any self-respecting office job holder would do and googled dialectics at work. Suddenly I was reading Marx and Hegel and Wikipedia! Now I’m not going to try and explain the whole thing to y’all because 1) I only know what I know about it, which is relatively little and 2) I wouldn’t want to condescend to anyone who does actually really get it, especially the linguistic conventions of talking about philosophy. But, to the point, it has to do with conflict, paradox, change, progress, movement and uncertainty. In the context of history (of Half Nelson), we can understand events, changes and history itself as reactions to internal and external conflicts, as struggles between opposing forces: it isn’t cause and effect (if a then b). Dialectics doesn’t really work for science (or rather the scientific method; Darwin was all about this shit), but, if you ask me, science can teach us how to make an iPhone (debatable), but not how to live our lives.

So, opposites and contradictions have at least three properties: 1) they’re interdependent, 2) they interpenetrate and 3) they’re in union. A lot of Eastern thought, to be totally Orientalist, relies on this — hence the beautiful green yin-yang you see, which is probably why I dig it and subconsciously why I found myself consulting the I Ching the day after watching Half Nelson. But, if it’s valid, to use a word, it ought to hold up to any part of my life, like, and here it is, my hatred of cilantro. How can dialectics inform my understanding of this hate?

Well, as it turns out, it has totally shed some light. First, there’s hate in every love and love in every hate (that’s the interpenetration part — the little white and black dots in the yin-yang). What that really means to me is that nothing is pure, nothing is the real ideal of the thing ever, certainly not in reality. So, I can hate cilantro as much as pure hate is possible (and I do; I hate it more than mean people), but it’s only so possible. What’s more interesting to me is the interdependence of love and hate. For better or worse, I need cilantro lovers both to define myself, as in opposition to something and for tons of fodder — I love making fun of those morons. Without cilantro love, cilantro hate couldn’t exist, cilantro would just be. It couldn’t be loved or hated, or it would have gone extinct from lack of consumption or taken over like a weed or who knows but it certainly wouldn’t be like this: the silent culture war instigator that it is.

Then, there’s the union of opposites, that the closer you get to the extreme of something the more it is it’s opposite. It’s like my friend Miki’s always saying, hate isn’t the opposite of love, indifference is; I think she’s right. In my case, it’s not so much that I hate cilantro so much that I love it; it’s that it’s become so much fun to hate it I kind of have a soft spot in my heart for it.

I hate cilantro, but I love it too.

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