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Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market. Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.” The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature. True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid. For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available. The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations. Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.
Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla. These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas. Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia. According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.” As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.
Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods. Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods. Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks. The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded. Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.
The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long. From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans. When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.
Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient. Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid. It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods. It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret. The vanilla flower (Vanilla planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.
Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion, discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery. He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.
Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available. The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products. Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile: anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former. Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess which synthetic compounds can never capture.
And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.