Blast Theory’s artist in residence Heather Kelley projected a bundle of coriander on screen. “Does anyone have a strong reaction to coriander?” As guest lecturer at our weekly MA Digital Media Arts group at Lighthouse, she was running a session on the use of smell as an interface in art and games design.

Apparently coriander (or cilantro) is one of those smells that causes quite strong reactions in people due to it’s particular characteristics. This post is about my strong reaction to coriander, how it significantly shaped my life choices through adolescence and how it stopped being a problem. It starts in Bogota, Colombia.

We were on a family holiday to my aunt’s house in Bogota. I was 7 or 8 years old. It was a family lunch and we formed a long table of at least 12 people – our family and theirs. On the menu was Sancocho.  There are lots of ingredients in Sancocho which is a kind of watery stew made up principally of maiz, chicken, pork, cecino (pork fat), yuka/yam, potato and flavoured intensely with cumin and coriander. It’s an important celebratory dish – like a sunday roast, paella or biriani might be for other cultures. These are meals that take hours to prepare, join all the women folk in the cooking, and are shared with large groups at special times.

It’s not easy to know how a trauma starts but in this story, the cecino (pork fat) is a principal agent. Colombian culture is quite strict about eating protocol so I was meant to eat it all up. Every last bit. That included the yuka (which i already disliked due to it’s stringy starchy consistency) and the pork fat which is a tricky substance to eat or swallow due to it’s slimy stretchy consistency. Chewing the fat was almost impossible and in trying to swallow it, I choked. To the horror of the whole family and utter disgrace of my dad, the choking led to gagging and wretching which led quickly to vomitting – the contents of my small stomach flung onto the table in front of me, over the soup bowl of sancocho,  soaking into the white tablecloth and around the glasses.

I am a whirling mess of discomfort, embarrassment and fear. The next thing I know I am being torn from my chair by my arm. The chair falls to the floor and I am spun around onto the floor behind the table by my dad. With lightning speed he proceeds to undo his belt and pulls it out from his trouser belt loops with a loud swooshing sound.

I don’t recall how long the belting lasted. I don’t recall how lunch was continued. I don’t recall what anyone said or did. I don’t recall anything beyond that point but in my mind I recreated the scene a thousand ways over the years – in each one there are a lot of people whitnessing the scene. In each one I feel utterly humiliated. In each one my dad is the villain. In each one my mum is absent.

10 years pass by and I find myself standing in the dinner queue at the Astrophysics institute in Bangalore, India. I am there with my boyfriend who’s father is an eminent scientist. I leave the queue to ask the chef if he can please prepare some boiled vegetables for me. I can’t eat anything with cumin or coriander in. He politely nods and prepares me half a small boiled cauliflower and 2 boiled potatoes.

With various minor variations in vegetables, this was my dinner for 1 month. I lost a lot of weight. I could see the bones sticking out of my shoulders and wondered if I looked like a supermodel or just ill. I was thin. So what happened if I smelled or tasted cumin or coriander? I would gag. Even the merest whiff of either would provoke the reaction. Over the years I had engineered my eating habits and choice of food in such a way as to avoid eating either of these dishes. Colombia was far away from England and I avoided family occasions if i could.

Luckily after a month in Bangalore we moved into our own flat. Here I could cook whatever I wanted. I started back at school to continue my education. India’s equivalent to A-levels. So far away from home, from anything familiar, I was enrolled in a Christian all-girls school in a leafy colonial estate. Monkeys swept down at break time to steal tiffin boxes full of yellow rice from the hands of girls who had turned their heads to gossip in hushed giggles. I joined the basketball team. I was happiest when i played. Nothing was more thrilling than winning a match.

It was one such day that we played in a schools tournament. An all day affair of game after game outside on the open courts. Our team won. Happy and hungry our coach took us all for a celebratory meal. I didn’t even think about it. I didn’t have a choice about what I was going to eat. I didn’t care. Every dish was delicious. Every dish contained cumin and coriander. Matar Paneer with butter naan – that was the most amazing meal i’d ever had.


So what had happened?  Without knowing it, I had overcome a trauma I wasn’t even aware I had. Until that time I hadn’t been able to put the colombian lunch event into any kind of context. I talk of it as a re-appropriation now. I took back every flavour and smell in that dish. That happy day in Bangalore was an accident,  but from then on I consciously re-appropriated all the other things I could think of that I had lost. I consciously removed all the cultural boundaries that I had created. Every taste, every sound, every musical style, every spoken accent, every opportunity I had rejected for so many years. When I returned briefly to the UK to apply for a student visa,  I stole casettes from my dad’s collection. Colombian music,  cultural codes from a country I hated by association. I learned to love it. Re-appropriation from afar seemed to work. I was putting culture in a bubble and it felt like a safe place in which to play with it, find out how I felt about it. Make it my own.

Today I am 38.  I have two small sons. Today I struggle being a parent because I find myself up against other childhood traumas which had never really made themselves felt until I became a parent. Breaking patterns which threaten to repeat themselves with my own children. This is the challenge of re-appropriation I face. Putting these other traumas into bubbles so that i can play with them and take them back. I am thin again. Not physically (I’m actually on the rather plumper side of healthy) but spiritually. Joy and gladness makes us healthy on the inside but boiled cauliflower parenting is limiting my choices and depriving me of the joy I hear is common among parents. This challenge needs new tools, new games, new perspectives.

Heather Kelley is artist in residence at Blast Theory : 

photo of sancocho by John Keogh. photo of Indian meal by sarverr62



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