Distaste vs. Disgust: The Politics of Flavor
A Cilantro-Hater’s Attempt at Finding Balance in a Polarized World
Unlike the other 300,000 members of the I Hate Coriander (cilantro) Facebook group, I try my best to forgive the bits that inevitably slide into my Al Pastor tacos. I wouldn’t choose to be a Cilantrophobe in a Mexican household, but the experience is undeniable. One tiny fragment of a single leaf dominates my entire palate with a soapy sting. In the spirit of Julia Child, I’d “pick it out if I saw it, and throw it on the floor.” Culinary sophistication is not immune to distaste.
But then there’s disgust — the cringeworthy feeling that precedes the bite itself. The hair raising aroma of stinky cheese, the medicinal tang of star anise, the slightly odd pungence of a papaya, or the thought of eating raw fish before trying sushi for the first time. It was gross before you loved it, remember?
Taste is an interesting phenomenon and one not exclusive to food. We make up our mind about things we like and dislike before bothering to actually experience them. But there are no accurate conclusions to draw from a sample size of one. While it’s true that taste is subjective — a combination of both innate and learned preferences — we’re so easily fooled by projections of the past and fear of the unknown. We don’t just eat foods because we like them, we like them because we eat them.
Psychology Professor and Food Philosopher Paul Rozin describes disgust as “a powerful form of negative socialization and an abstract moral emotion.” It’s a reaction informed by our beliefs rather than the sensory response to taste itself. According to Rozin, disgust evolves culturally, having “[developed] from a system that protects the body from harm to a system that protects the soul from harm”… or so we’d like to believe.
Disgust as a moral emotion resonates far beyond flavor. The confused biological response polarizes not only our sensory, but also our social, sexual, and political convictions. It’s prejudice that lives in the stomach: an outdated visceral reaction triggered by fear.
But in reality, what joy is there in being a picky eater? How do we push past the preconceptions that limit our capacity to love? Not only foods, but also the people, places, artworks, ideas that span beyond our comfort zones. The ones we so easily dismiss.
Since I was eight years old, I’ve been on a quest to expand beyond my then all-white-rice diet. By 23, there were only 5 foods that still made me cringe: olives, avocado, beets, oysters, and cilantro. That year, I consolidated my findings and developed a strategy to change my mind. A combination of mindful eating exercises, repeated exposure, classical conditioning, and simply being willing to wholeheartedly give something a chance.
It worked… for four out of the five, at least. But beyond adding new foods to my flavor catalog, I discovered a revolutionary feeling: the subtle shift that happens in our physical and energetic body when we relax our convictions in the face of images and ideas that contract us most. For a split second, we agree to lose control, to not have an answer, and to welcome in an entirely new experience, like the depth of an oyster or even life beyond planet earth. It’s difficult in practice. A terrifying kind of expansion that’s radical, yet so fundamental to the human experience.
Other times, considering an alternative validates the beliefs we had all along. My failure to integrate cilantro was a success in learning the difference between distaste and disgust— experience and projection. It’s more fun to learn these lessons through food, of course. The hard part is applying them to the bigger picture. But as the plot grows messy and chaotic, I find solace in dropping our fables in favor of vulnerability and adventure. I fill my plate with many colors and let my gut decide.