Archive for the ‘Social Commentary’ Category

I’m not much of a liar.

There’s an obvious potential paradox here that I won’t even insult you explaining, but choose to believe me or not, I’m actually a pretty honest person. This is for a variety of reasons most notably: I’m bad at lying, My long-term memory is better than my short term memory and I would have a hard time keeping my facts straight (in other words, I’m bad at lying) and I, to be honest, have this strange sense of what one might call integrity wrapped around this virtue, if you will, of telling the truth. Telling the truth is better than not, most of the time, and I leave it to men smarter and men dumber than me to decide when those times might be.

Except with this whole “I’m allergic to cilantro” businesss, which WSJ quoted me on and has been the source of much discussion since. Commenters have written that they are worried I’ve exposed the lie as such and restaurateurs and cocktail hour hosts across the world will no longer take the allergy proclamation seriously. Another commenter worries that the “crying wolf” waters down the very serious allergies of people like her daughter–restaurants no longer take allergies seriously, everyone’s got an “allergy,” these days.

To be fair, I’ve always had a somewhat unfounded attitude towards allergies, with the exception of peanuts (though I resent people with peanut allergies because it means I can’t eat them on planes anymore), thinking they’re largely the result of 1) too worrisome parents who don’t feed their kids anything potentially allergy-causing and hence end up with kids “allergic” to everything 2) nature telling us we shouldn’t be eating these things we’re “allergic” too (lactose intolerant, please, eating milk from another species (and after early childhood) is unprecedented in the animal kingdom and just straight weird–yes I eat milk products) 3) a general hypochondria that has swept the nation. But, while these opinions aren’t going anywhere soon, in all seriousness, of course if a child, especially, has a physical reaction when eating a food, I don’t want to stand in the way, in any way, of them not eating that food.

But, I don’t see that happening. I worked in a bunch of restaurants and I can tell you chefs take allergies seriously, especially real ones like peanut allergies, and while they find it HOPELESSLY ANNOYING, they don’t want to get sued or lose business, so they comply. They’ve gotten so used to allergies, that they are actually more prepared and skilled at dealing with them. Separate areas for peanuts, separate pans for garlic or meat or vegetables. Do they sneak a little butter into risotto they call vegan? I’ve seen it done. And why? Because they find vegans annoying and their cause not sympathetic whereas they find people with allergies equally annoying, but a potential lawsuit–they would also have proof of the infraction in theory where the vegan wouldn’t. (I’m speaking in general from my experience here, but I think I’m right). So there you go, the person with the allergy gets what they want and the person with a distaste doesn’t, at least not relaibly.

So then the question becomes, do I, a paying customer deserve to get what I want? Yes. I think so. I treat “the help” politely and when I’ve explained I don’t like, even hate cilantro, it finds a way onto the plate. Those of you who have watched a certain amount of Sex and the City know that the Carrie Bradshaw character does not like parsley and uses the same lying technique to avoid getting parsley in her food. This of course annoys Berger to no end and is probably the beginning of the end of their relationship, but I digress. I get what I want when I lie. It carries that I could do this in other arenas of my life, (get what I want by lying) but one must sacrifice one’s integrity with calculation and consideration for mankind.

I would argue that the rampant allergic-ness of America has in fact made it easier to have an allergy in America (described above) and that while this makes things more difficult and annoying for chefs, it makes things better for diners, in other words for the demand to the restaurant’s supply, and those with allergies have nothing to fear from liars like me, and cilantro haters calling themselves allergic similarly have nothing to fear because the chef is obliged to take the allergy seriously. But cilantro haters out there, if your hate is as real, as tangible, as undeniable as mine, it is as serious an unpleasantry as most not-serious allergies (which is to say most allergies) and if lying means I can enjoy a meal, one man’s hives is another man’s ruined palate and dining experience, let’s leave it at that.

And lying’s kind of fun too.

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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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I hear there are bloggers out there who post, I dunno, a few times a week, every day, several times a day, but let’s be honest — as much as I may try, I’m no Perez Hilton. (It’s taken some time and support of friends to come to terms with this undeniable fact.) I’ve made the reasonable deal with myself to post once a week, you know, -ish. But sometimes, cilantro news comes to light and you (I) realize it is only really you (me) who can properly address the issue. And so it is that I have to act now; I wouldn’t be doing my cilantro-hating duty otherwise.

I Hate Cilantro.com, my friend and nemesis (these things are never simple) seems to be out of order, or under construction, or – I dont’ know – folding. This is what it looks like as of 2:49pm EST, 3/27/2008:

And it’s looked this way since at least early yesterday. I don’t know what’s going on, but I can tell you I don’t like it one bit. I cannot bare the literary/web burden of cilantro hate alone; I need ihatecilantro.com back. What I’m hoping is they’re going for a site redesign/revamp — they hadn’t updated their “news” since September — and will be back bigger and better than ever. While I’m not a member of their clan, I do love what they do, the multiplicity of voices they add to the truly infinite diversity that is cilantro hate.

And so, in this uncharacteristic spirit of pseudo news, frequent Perez-style posting, I’ll keep this post short and I’ll leave you with this amazing image.

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I would like to take this opportunity, that my public forum I Hate Cilantro blog has so provided me, to stand on a soap box of a different sort today. I might make some of you white hipsters out there uncomfortable in doing so, but, alas, this is a price I’m willing to pay — I like skinny jeans and Vampire Weekend just as much as the next guy (my hip, music-loving coworker has told me Vampire Weekend would be a good choice to illustrate my clear hipness).

In the past week I’ve received emailed links or Gchat status notifications that would have me reading/viewing/listening to items like Top 10 Raps Songs White People Like and the Stuff White People Like Blog. In the past month I’ve noticed similar Web 2.0 (if you will) manifestations, such as the hip office worker’s favorite SomeEcards’ treatment of Black History Month, or Black Heritage Month as I’m told by a New York Teaching Fellow friend it is supposed to be called. SomeEcards has cards with lines like “Let’s do the whitest thing possible” where a group of honkies (if you will) ride together in a ski lift. In another, it is suggested that an appropriate way to celebrate Black Heritage Month might be to abstain from shopping at JCrew. There are many more examples of a trend I’m trying to point to — indeed, a google search of “What White People Like” will also bring you to sites like Black People Love Us, a site I was already aware of because a hip friend had shared it with me several months ago. A good friend and his hip friend constantly refer to each other as honkies, and have for years.

So where does the soap box part come in? I want to put this succinctly, clearly. It seems to me what one couldn’t call anything other than a trend, and what I’ll call especially a trend specific to hip, (or would-be hip) white, college-educated often urban dwelling folks, has developed: ostensible (and that word is important here) white self-mockery achieved through defining white stereotypes (of a certain class, more on this later) but, perhaps more importantly, also perpetuating black ones across the web (2.0) and in the ever decreasing phenomenon, real life. I have zero respect for or interest in political correctness, so I’m no offended by any of these sites or cards, what have you, as such, especially in isolation. What troubles me is that this trend (these “white people” sites and cards) is perhaps not what it purports to be.

Allow me to explain. Nerds often like to make fun of themselves for being nerds, especially when they’ve gone to fancy schools (like I did) in similar company. These are not the nerds from the Revenge of the Nerds. These are, generally, economically advantaged nerds who relish in their nerdiness, knowing that they aren’t really making fun of themselves at all when they do so, but actually subversively talking about how awesome they are (because it is, afterall, both cool and of socio-economic importance as an adult to be a nerd, so-to-speak). I don’t have a huge problem with the phenomenon; I’m guilty of it myself.

What I do have a problem with is when the same idea is turned into a black/white dichotomy, instead of a smart/not smart one. I might have been born smart, but I also read and stuff. One is born black or white. More importantly, I reject the idea that it is better to be black or white (as I think most people would when put in those terms). It would be naive to say they aren’t different experiences (being black or white), but it would be undeniably racist to say it is better to be one or the other. If you look at the list of things white people like to do on the Stuff White People Like Blog — study abroad, eat brunch, recycle, spend money on expensive sandwiches, read The Times — these are largely things another group of people like to do: educated, and/or rich people. And yes, unless I’m completely out of touch, there are educated and/or rich black people. The thing is, when white people (full disclosure — I’m white) make fun of themselves in these terms, they’re really saying, as nerds do when they make fun of themselves as nerds, that they’re better than black people.

People feel good about themselves when they study abroad, recycle, order imported cheeses on their sandwiches and read the Times; they think they are better than people who do not do these things (don’t deny this; you’re lying to yourself if you do). The implication is that white people do these things and black (I should say other races, but I think this whole phenomenon is setup more as a black and white thing, so maybe I should stick with that) people don’t; according to this logic white people are better than black people. I don’t think this is what is intended, but I think, if we’re honest with ourselves, it is at least part of what is accomplished.

So while everyone is busy these days making observations and drawing conclusions and theories on what white people like to do, I’d like to go on the record, as the self-declared living expert on cilantro hate (ihatecilantro.com still hasn’t posted any news since early September), as saying this: There is absolutely no correlation between cilantro love or hate and race (both Oprah magazine and Gourmet feature cilantro recipes prominently). Because it is, however, a known fact that cilantro lovers are morons, there might in fact be a correlation between hipsterdom and cilantro love, and there might be an association between hipness and whiteness, but any conclusions you want to draw out of these correlations, I assure you I don’t mean them as false or subversive insults.

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Jewish Friend whose mother has just died: Erin, don’t you run out of ideas for your i hate cilantro blog?

Erin: No, check this out — shiva: cilantro-free.

JFWMHJD: Got it.

Here’s one thing the world’s great religions (by great religions I mean the ones I like, not the ones that are big; see, as I carry a minor in religion I’m equipped to have these sorts of opinions) have in common, despite seemingly limitless differences: they realize the importance of food and drink in not only everyday life, but especially in major life events, as part of the mourning process very much included.

Last week I attended my first shiva and before going, everyone that mentioned the event and their experiences with them in the past pointed to exactly one thing and nothing else: food. At shiva there will always and forever be copious amounts of food. Is it, we wondered, somehow irreverent to serve a hoagie on such an occasion, as one friend had seen during his grandfather’s shiva? Well, what is it that somehow makes casserole more holy than a hoagie, another friend questioned. Good point. And who doesn’t love hoagies?

Upon arrival at my friend’s home last week, I did immediately notice a wide and diverse spread of food. I particularly enjoyed the juxtaposition of the large boxes of coffee sitting next to the handles of single malt Scotch. You gotta figure, everyone wants one or the other (or both). Then, on to the food: mixed green salad with nuts, fruit, cheese and an impressively emulsified balsamic vinaigrette (on the side); lots of bread; grilled vegetables; cold cuts and cheeses; cake; gluten-free cupcakes; cookies (full of gluten); Whole Foods’ mezze platter; macaroons; fruit; no hoagies. In this diverse spread, what was, to me (and I’m quite certain no one else), noticeably missing was cilantro, or any food that might reasonably contain it.

According to the McCormick “Enspicelopedia”: “Ancient Hebrews added Cilantro to an herb mixture in the ritual of Passover.” According to my modern-day Jewish friends whom I’ve consulted on the issue, what with their constant reading of the Torah, obsession with regular temple attendance and relentless shunning of bacon, experts on and representatives of Jews everywhere, cilantro really has no presence in foods traditionally (read currently) eaten during rituals like Passover, Hanukkah, etc. While a lack of cilantro might not save the Jewish cuisine from crimes like Gefilte fish, I never met a latke I didn’t like and even the most ardent cilantro supporter might agree that cilantro’s presence would bastardize and ruin the perfect condiment vehicle that is the latke.

See, the thing is, that as unmitigatedly sad/tragic/existentially unnerving as death is, especially to those closest to it (friends are just sort of fumblingly along for the ride) I conjecture, to me it isn’t religion’s ability to really alleviate any of this through its dogma, theology or words of wisdom. Instead, it’s its insistence that one eats, that one’s friends bring and prepare the food that one eats. That it is through this bringing and preparing of food that people are able to show, in some small measure, that they care. And that, yes, in the case of my first experience with shiva, this food is not only ample and diverse but provides no unwanted herbal distractions from the matter at hand — eating, searching for the right words.

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As the primaries are in full swing and the fates of many, indeed the whole nation as some of these pundits keep insisting, are on the line, this Super Tuesday’s got me thinking: if cilantro were a presidential candidate, which one would it be.

To review, some things I think about cilantro, and why I hate it:

It’s the skunk of the earth, it’s everywhere, it’s completely overwhelming, it makes me uncomfortable in restaurants and people love it but I don’t (I feel ostracized).

1) Skunk of the earth: This is a tough one. Distinguishing between many politicians and general skunk of the earthiness is no easy feat, but for me, the skunkiest of them all is Mike Huckabee — pretty much everything he has to say leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

2) It’s everywhere: Easy one. John McCain. Everywhere. The Times reports today that his media coverage is killing the competition (quantity, not necessarily quality (although, as a digression, this whole liberal slant of the media thing is total bullshit)), including the two democratic contenders, Obama and Clinton, or as I would have it Obama Obama Obama Obama Obama Obama Obama Obama and Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton Clinton.

3) Completely overwhelming: Another easy one: Alan Keyes. But, if we’re limiting the list to candidates who have a shot in hell of their party’s nomination, gotta go with Huckabee again on this one. While Obama may overplay the message of hope, or what I like to think of as the audacity of the audacity of hope, Huckabee insists on actually hailing from Hope, Arkansas — it’s just too literal for me. Ease up dude.

4) It makes me uncomfortable in restaurants: Look, my most effective defense in avoiding my discomfort when having to avoid certain kinds of restaurants, dishes or make a special point to have the server check with the kitchen (and very often then back with wrong information) would be to somehow decrease the amount of cilantro that’s around. Now this leads me to the immigration issue. We all know cilantro’s proliferation is, if nothing else, but one byproduct of unchecked and uncontrolled immigration, it being largely found in Indian, Latin American and various Asian cuisines.* It is therefore Barack Obama who would make me most uncomfortable in restaurants, intentionally or inadvertently further increasing cilantro’s presence in restaurants across the country through his lax immigration policies and cosmopolitan upbringing. But, then again, to paraphrase Voltaire, I disagree passionately with your cilantro herb usage and hence assault on my palate, but I’ll fight til the death your right to, you know, cook the food you want to eat in a country you want to eat it in.

5) People love it and I don’t: McCain. He’s gonna win the primary, heard it hear first** Lot’s of folks like him because, to quote some lady from a swing state on the times audio commentary today, he’s a centrist. A lot of people think cilantro is just sort of a fresh, pleasant, citrusy, summery herb. But these people are wrong. Like cilantro, McCain’s danger is in seeming so neutral, so friendly, like such a good guy that’s going to unite the country and personify the inner would-be veteran in all of us. Not so. Not so.

In the end, the 1-2 punch of McCain’s everywhere-ness and counter intuitive popularity I think make it (excuse me, him) most like cilantro. If cilantro went up in a race against my favorite candidates (I’ll call Hillary tarragon [divisive, great in small doses, serious] and Obama Thai basil [worldly in an approachable way, fresh, full of hope***) he’d have a shot in hell of winning (unlike Huckabee, who I might like less but who is less of a threat — I’d rather eat cilantro than hot cow dung, but hot cow dung doesn’t present problems when I go to eat out or to a friend’s dinner party since they don’t like hot cow dung either) and I really just don’t have the time to write another hate blog.

Go vote!

*This is a joke used for purely rhetorical purposes. I support melting pots and salad bowls and immigration and all that.
**Also a joke.
***Also a joke.

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