From the Exotic to the Bland: Vanilla – Shari Bodofsky

We all know someone who we would call vanilla. You’re probably picturing them now – someone who follows every rule, does everything they’re supposed to and nothing they’re not supposed to, and probably the type who would throw a really boring party. SO vanilla, right?

It’s interesting that vanilla has become synonymous with all things bland and boring, considering this orchid’s rich history and exotic botanical origins. That’s right, vanilla is an orchid, just like the one on your kitchen windowsill that you wish would bloom again already. Vanilla planifolia Andrews of the Orchidaceae family is the only orchid that produces an agriculturally valuable crop. It grows as a thick, fleshy vine that hangs off of other plants. It produces a yellow (and sometimes whitish or greenish) flower, and the bean pods that are so prized.

Vanilla flowers are part of what made vanilla so elusive for so many years. The vanilla flower only blooms for a 24 hour period, and can only be pollinated by a type of bee indigenous to Central America (vanilla’s native habitat). That makes it very hard to move vanilla to new areas. Despite vanilla’s presence throughout Central America, the Totonaco were the first documented people to harvest it. The key to using vanilla is that it must be first dried and steamed before eating – a distinctive process unique to the Totonaco.

The Totonaco loved their vanilla so much that it even had an origin legend. I have read several versions of this story, but it goes something like this: Princess Xanat fell in love with a mortal prince. Her father forbad her from being with him, so the two ran away into the forest. The couple was hunted down and murdered. Where their blood hit the soil sprouted the first vanilla vine.

It may not be the stuff of movies, but people really love vanilla. When the Totonaco were conquered by the Aztecs, the Totonaco began paying taxes in the form of vanilla. Vanilla was mixed with cocoa to make a drink called tlilxochital, which was strictly reserved for royalty, noblemen, and the richest members of society. When the Aztecs were conquered by Cortez, the “little pod” (vainilla) was brought back to Europe were it became popular for drinks and perfumes (and aphrodisiacs).

The French, in particular, really loved vanilla. They incorporated vanilla into a variety of new cuisine. They brought the vanilla plant to Madagascar; where a slave figured out how to hand pollinate the flower, finally allowing vanilla production to skyrocket. Madagascar continues to be a major producer of the world’s vanilla crops, along with Indonesia and Reunion.

Having spent some time in France, Thomas Jefferson, American founding father, developed a taste for vanilla. Upon arriving in the colonies, Jefferson wrote to his friends in France requesting the beans be sent over. Jefferson is now credited with bringing vanilla to the United States, where vanilla continues to be a popular flavor.

Today, vanilla is everywhere. It’s our favorite ice cream, cookie, frosting, candle, lip gloss, perfume, and nearly everything else sweet too.  But vanilla farming has taken a toll on many communities. Vanilla prices are dropping, vanilla theft is rising, and vanilla harvesters are feeling the brunt of it. As we get better at planting vanilla in new places, and making vanilla substitutes, vanilla prices keep falling. However, the harvesting process remains extremely labor intensive.

Since vanilla remains a relatively expensive flavoring, many fake vanilla flavorings are used. I was hard-pressed to find some cookies at the supermarket that actually listed vanilla as an ingredient. Artificial vanilla is vanillin extract from other plants, including wood lignin and wood tar.

Maybe it’s time to rethink calling your bland buddy “vanilla”. You’d just be calling them a beloved exotic orchid. And after all, who doesn’t love vanilla?

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