by Alaina Mabaso
De gustibus et coloribus non disputandum.
Respecting differences of opinion is one thing. But I wish some people could take this advice in Latin (“there is no disputing matters of taste”) literally.
“Oh, just wait til you’re older, then you’ll like it” was a phrase I heard a lot as a kid. At 29, I’ve given up hope. When I pass the cilantro in a food market, for example, the assault of that smell makes me clap a hand to my nose. If I accidentally take a bite of food with those sinister green flecks, the herb flares through my nose like a snort of soapy water.
The brown, sick, cloying smell of caraway seeds makes me feel ill. If I accidently take a bite of bread with caraway in it, a faint sense of nausea will pursue me for years whenever I think of it. Don’t get me started on the thick, acrid slipperiness of Brussels sprouts or a green apple’s crisp, pinching sourness. And I can’t stand the high, sick sweetness and subtle bitter finish of the artificial sugars in “lite” yogurt, juice and soda.
But all these nasal and gastronomic grievances are mere annoyance compared to my abhorrence of peppers. Even round, cheerful bell peppers have an ominous, dewy smell I assiduously avoid. I spend dinners in nice restaurants praying that my companions will decline the fresh-ground pepper. Even if it doesn’t touch my food, the smell makes me feel sick.
I avoid peppers the way I avoid sharp corners. The rest of my family craves spicy bayou shrimp, relishing the burn between crusty bites of bread. Sometimes when I’m out to dinner with them, I’ll look at the bisque on the menu and timidly ask the wait staff, “Is that a mild soup?”
But the problem is that my conception of “mild” is its own absolute realm. “Mild” does not mean that a hint of spice plays nicely against the creamy avocado or adds subtle heat to the sweet corn. To me, “mild” means that not only does my food not contain peppers of any description, but that none of the ingredients in my food has ever touched a pepper, or a surface touched by a pepper.
When others claim that they can’t taste any spice, my tongue burns for 20 minutes. Each menu or dinner party is a minefield of ginger, chilies or capers, overpowering seeds and herbs, cilantro mayonnaises, sun-dried pepper spreads and unexpectedly hot, smoky ketchups.
It’s a miracle that anyone ever eats dinner with me.
Of course, I have to admit that I’ve been grateful for my senses more than once. There was that time at my college theater when an absent-minded actress draped a piece of her costume across a scorching-hot bulb, and I traced the smell from the house to the backstage dressing room before anything caught fire. Or the time at my old job at Eastern State Penitentiary, when a tourist snuck into a forbidden area and tossed a lit cigarette under the old floorboards. And I’ll admit, there is an oddly gratifying distinction in being the one to whom authority is given on the freshness of the milk.
But for the most part, a nose like mine is a curse. Each square foot of the sidewalk in center city is its own olfactory minefield: the dumpster in the alley, passers’-by cologne, shampoo and perfume, cigarettes, a nail salon, candle store, the sour spilled beer wafting from the door of a dark and sticky bar, urine, fried chicken, other commuters’ cinnamon gum. I don’t know what’s worse: sweaty body odor, baby-powder scented deodorant or walking past a person who burns incense at home.
Sometimes I have to change my clothes after people hug me: whatever “fragrance” they’re wearing lingers unbearably on my clothes, pricking my nose and throat with every breath.
A few years ago, I toured a cave in Oregon. Our guide explained that cave rats mark their way to the surface with urine. I thought that was what I smelled, but after dropping to the back of the group I found unexpected relief when I realized it had been the tour guide’s breath.
Sure, you expect the stinkbug’s homely brown stench, but while you might like the dusty tomato sheen of a lucky ladybug, have you noticed their pungent, cloying smell? I avoid killing ants because of their stinging acid odor. And millipedes have a thick reek that drives me out of the room.
Febreze commercials claim that pastel-clad housewives can disguise the fact that they have cats, a garbage can or a teenage son, but to me, bad smells are a sensory torture like no other (despite the advice of craven nasal defeatists who say, “After a while you won’t notice the smell anymore”). And my culinary quirks have a decided impact on my daily life, even if it’s just my dinner mates’ annoyed or quizzical looks.
Once, a family member accused me of faking it all because I enjoy the distinction of being such a finicky person. I wish that’s all it was. If we shouldn’t contradict others’ opinions, we also probably shouldn’t decree what other people can and can’t perceive, or why they detest the sensations they say they do. But on the other hand, maybe arguments about my senses are better than hearing one more person say, “Well, I don’t smell anything.”