Malcolm Manners via Flickr
Fun fact: The vines that vanilla beans grow on also produce orchids.
Say you know someone, maybe a friend of a friend, who's perfectly pleasant but just sort of lacks any sort of oomph. You don't want to be mean (because, you, unkind? Never), but if you had to describe that person in a really, really honest way, how would you do it?
Call the FOF boring? Bland? Dull?
We often use "vanilla" as shorthand for blandness. And :
Vanilla as a flavor is overused, and it's in so many things. Nilla
Wafers. Yogurt. Ice cream. Soda. Practically everything you bake. It
might be that vanilla has become so standard that we don't even taste
"The explosion of low-fat and low-carb products has created
a need for strong flavors to render these foods remotely appetizing," —
and vanilla was seen as the solution. But it turns out that the vanilla
we find in most products isn't really pure vanilla. Most products are
made with this thing called vanillin, which is found in real vanilla but
is usually made synthetically.
So how did vanilla become a
kind of cultural metaphor for whiteness? It's not too far of a stretch
to say that we've seen this SAT-ish synonym match in real-life: vanilla is to whiteness :: chocolate is to blackness.
like this don't work in isolation, says Harryette Mullen, a poet and
professor who teaches English and African-American studies at the
University of California, Los Angeles. Think about the expression "plain
vanilla," she tells me. When you consider that phrase, you're probably
thinking of something that lacks other flavors.
Whiteness has always, always been defined in proximity to blackness.
is also associated with cleanliness, purity, but also blankness — the
lack of color. So I think these ideas are kind of paralleled, the white
versus colorful — 'colored' — and the chocolate versus plain vanilla,"
Mullen says. "So it's a way of reversing the kind of implied superiority
of whiteness by saying that whiteness is the less interesting color ...
because it's maintained as a norm. And we also have some ideas of how
normal is desired but also boring."
Given its tumultuous history, that vanilla is now an analog for dull and white is pretty odd.
Because, you see, vanilla comes from the .
They first cultivated the beans and used them for medicinal purposes —
not for flavoring. The Totonacs had to pay tribute to the Aztecs in the
form of thousands and thousands of vanilla beans. And it was the Aztecs
who used vanilla beans for flavoring. They mixed them with other things —
like cacao. (Because, chocolate drank. Aka choclatl, aka xocolatl.) But it was the eventual Spanish conquest of the Aztecs that brought vanilla as a flavor to Europe and beyond.
sources credit Hernán Cortés and his soldiers who conquered the Aztecs
for bringing vanilla from Mexico to Europe. Bernardino de Sahagún and
Bernal Díaz del Castillo were among the first Europeans to describe .
Europeans used vanilla in couple different ways:
- Medical reasons. And by medical reasons, I mean sex reasons. According to the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions To The World, the root of the name that the Spaniards gave the plant, was vaina. This referred to .
Vanilla was used as both an aphrodisiac and a nerve stimulant. (So
maybe if you want to take some cues from the Spaniards, you'll be giving
out vanilla beans instead of chocolate next Valentine's Day, eh? Eh?)
Speaking of plant products we adopted from other cultures: Vanilla was
mixed with tobacco plants, which were brought from the Americas to
It's widely cited that in 1602, Hugh Morgan, an apothecary for Queen Elizabeth I, introduced the queen to .
(It's said that Elizabeth had a real sweet tooth.) The queen went
completely nuts — or is that beans? — about vanilla, and wanted it
everywhere. Elizabeth is widely credited for popularizing the flavor,
and by the late 18th century, it had caught on in the United States.
Thomas Jefferson, who was minister to France before he became president,
most likely first enjoyed vanilla in Europe. He , which is pretty similar to how we make ice cream today.
Brian Boucheron via Flickr
Vanilla beans were first used by the Totonac Indians, who used the beans to pay tribute to the Aztecs.
But there was a problem. Folks didn't know how to cultivate or
efficiently process vanilla beans. (After Cortés executed Montezuma, the
Aztecs reportedly weren't so thrilled about shelling out their vanilla
secrets. And could you blame them?)
Think about the way vanilla
plants look: The beans are nestled in pods that grow on gnarly vines
that can get as long as 350 feet and have orchids that you might expect
to see in a flower shop. (You've probably seen some chef furiously
scraping vanilla beans with a ridiculously large knife on some timed
competitive cooking show. Ahh, yes. Chef Chow is adding in some real
vanilla to this steamed pomegranate fish soufflé. Five minutes
remaining on the clock!)
So how did folks learn to cultivate the plants? Well, slavery.
year was 1841. Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old French-owned black slave
from the Bourbon Islands, figured out what other botanists had tried to
do for centuries. Albius discovered that the vanilla plant could be
pollinated by hand using a blade of grass or a swipe of a thumb. It was
effective and labor-intensive, but once folks figured out how to
pollinate the plants, vanilla as a flavor became more accessible.
His discovery prompted French botanist Jean Michel Claude Richard to the technique years earlier, and some of the French press would later claim that Albius was white. (
acknowledges that Albius was a black slave, and also says his master
had him study botany.) Albius was eventually freed when slavery was
abolished in 1848, and he died in poverty. But the hand-pollinating
technique he created is still used on vanilla plants today, which is one
of the reasons why pure vanilla flavor is still so expensive.
its incredibly dark and fascinating history, it's kind of amazing that
of all things, vanilla has become a metaphor for blandness.