Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen. Coming up, why a license plate is stirring up trouble for the president-elect. But first, a story about taste and the plucky little leaf, cilantro. Some love it; some hate it. Producer Josh Kurz falls in the later camp, and he brings us this story.

JOSH KURZ: I hate cilantro. Cilantro should be wiped off the face of the planet.

Mr. JASON MAJOR: It has that same sort of acrid sweetness of death.

KURZ: And I'm not alone.

Ms. WENDY RODERWEISS: When I look at it and it's, like, this pretty little green leaf and it's all wet, like, I'm a happy little herb, and then it's just got this evilness to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RODERWEISS: (Laughing) It's just so awful.

KURZ: That's Wendy Roderweiss(ph) and Jason Major(ph), two friends of mine, experiencing cilantro's freshly cut evilness.

Ms. RODERWEISS: Like, as soon as the lid came off...

Mr. MAJOR: I know, it just, like, hits you.

KURZ: If you're listening to this, chances are you're either with us or against us.

Ms. RODERWEISS: Can I cover it up again?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RODERWEISS: (Laughing) It's so horrible.

KURZ: So, the question is why? Why are we cilantro haters different? Or maybe I should say special? In Googling for answers, I came across the term supertaster, which seems to make sense to me since only with a supersensitive palate can one recognize the true evil, soapy nature of cilantro.

Dr. DANIELLE R. REED (Monell Chemical Senses Center): When people hear the word supertasters, they sort of ascribe their own meaning to what that means.

KURZ: That's Dr. Danielle Reed of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, and she's done a lot of work on supertasting.

Dr. REED: Supertasting really has to do with these other bitter compounds, none of which, to the best of my knowledge, are found in cilantro.

KURZ: OK. So, these compounds may not be in cilantro, but clearly my intense reaction means I'm probably a supertaster, too, and that's a really easy test for this.

Dr. REED: Do you have your little test with you?

KURZ: Yes.

Dr. REED: Then you can go ahead and put the paper in your mouth.

KURZ: It's basically a piece of paper dipped in a special chemical that only special people can taste.

Dr. REED: So, are you chewing?

KURZ: A little bit.

Dr. REED: You're thinking, she just sent me paper...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KURZ: A little bit.

Dr. REED: Yeah, so just by your response and your ability to speak right now, you're a non-taster.

KURZ: Damn it.

(Soundbite of gagging)

Mr. MAJOR: (Laughing) I'm a little disappointed now.

KURZ: It's a little disappointing.

That's Jason, also a non-taster. And by the way, that's Wendy gagging in the background.

Dr. REED: If you were a supertaster, you would be very angry with me right now and you would be experiencing that as intensely bitter.

Ms. RODERWEISS: (Laughing) Can I spit it out?

Mr. MAJOR: No, you've got to chew it up a little more.

Ms. RODERWEISS: Oh, my God. It's horrible.

KURZ: There are other supertasters out there, but unlike Wendy, they like cilantro. So, supertasting and cilantro-hating, not really related. In fact, taste has nothing to do with it at all.

Ms. RODERWEISS: In just chewing, it just kind of tasted like parsley.

Mr. MAJOR: Yeah, it tastes like parsley. You're right. It doesn't taste like, like, really anything.

KURZ: And now release your nose...

Ms. RODERWEISS: Oh, I just...

Mr. MAJOR: Oh, yeah. That's horrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAJOR: OK. That's disgusting.

KURZ: So, it's the smell.

Dr. CHARLES WYSOCKI (Monell Chemical Senses Center): Yes, that's correct.

KURZ: That's Dr. Charles Wysocki, another Monell scientist, who is investigating genetics and smell perception.

Dr. WYSOCKI: We don't know what gene to go after, and unfortunately, cilantro is a complex mixture of hundreds of different molecules.

KURZ: So, fine. Then, my genes give me a keen X-Men sense of smell, like a super-smeller. So, when other people like Dr. Wysocki think cilantro smells...

Dr. WYSOCKI: Fantastically savory.

KURZ: Maybe it's because we super-smelling cilantro-haters are smelling something that other people can't. The only way to find out what that something is and, obviously, save the world is to put some in to a gas chromatograph. There's a bunch of these just lying around Monell, so I headed to the lab.

Dr. GEORGE PRETI (Monell Chemical Senses Center): Gas chromatograph is going to separate the volatile materials into components. And you all sit here; put your schnoz at the end of the tube and sniff.

KURZ: That's Dr. George Preti, a chemist, getting me ready to smell what's in cilantro.

Dr. PRETI: You're going to sniff continuously for about 40 minutes. You're going to tell us where the soapy odor comes out.

KURZ: The idea is that while I'm sniffing what's coming out the glass tube, a detector is simultaneously recording what those compounds are.

Dr. PRETI: Be prepared to sit here for 40 minutes. Don't break that tube.

KURZ: I can do that.

KURZ: Sure enough, at 22 minutes in...

Yep, that's it. It's the evil smell.

At this point, I really just wanted to know what it was, but I finished out the 40 minutes anyway. Then, we looked at the data.

Dr. PRETI: Strong cilantro at 31:30.

KURZ: Oh, really?

Dr. PRETI: Which you apparently didn't pick up on.

KURZ: Yeah, no, I didn't pick up the 31:30.

KURZ: Apparently, around 31 minutes and 30 seconds, Dr. Preti smelled what he called strong cilantro.

Unidentified Man #1: What Dr. Preti was smelling - you don't have the same sort receptors that are allowing you to detect those outcomes.

KURZ: Great.

Unidentified Man #2: You came into this thinking you're a supertaster...

KURZ: Oh, yeah. No, absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: You leave deflated.

KURZ: Yeah. This is depressing and deflating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KURZ: Yeah, really I'm crying on the inside, because, my fellow cilantro-haters, I feel disappointed to report that when it comes to this evil weed, we are not super-smelling X-Men. We are what smell scientists call anosmic, and we have noses that can't smell what is so good about cilantro, noses that I would call...

Essentially asleep...

Dr. PRETI: No, it's not asleep. It's just got different protein receptors in it.

KURZ: So, to all you smug cilantro-lovers out there who are now no doubt going to be telling all of us haters that we should just wake up and smell the cilantro, well, we can't; it's genetic. Now, pass the chips and salsa. Hey, you guys didn't put any of that devil's parsley on there, did you?

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: That was cilantro-hating producer Josh Kurz. If you'd like to find out whether or not you are a supertaster, go to our Web site. It's npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: More to come on Day to Day.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: