Vanilla has a PR problem. As a noun, vanilla refers to our most fragrant and complex flavor, the one we use to improve everything from cheesecake to chocolate. But as an adjective, it is a pejorative, employed to describe anything common, generic, or bland. We say “plain vanilla music” to indicate the mind-numbing elevator variety and “plain vanilla sex” when speaking of humdrum missionary style. When Prince Charles married his much-maligned sweetheart, a British newspaper branded her “Plain Vanilla Camilla.” Somehow, “vanilla” has become shorthand for bland.
It wasn’t always this way. For centuries, vanilla was considered exotic, luxurious, and rare. In the 16th century, Hernando Cortes brought vanilla beans from Mexico to Europe, and they became one of the Spanish empire’s most profitable commodities. Vanilla soon caught on among the European elite; Queen Elizabeth, an inveterate sugar addict, indulged daily in vanilla-infused pastries prepared by her chef. Even 50 years ago, vanilla still connoted “the very essence of zest and flavor,” as William Safire once wrote: At soda parlors, counter boys hollered, “Vanilla!” to alert kitchen workers to an attractive girl. Where, then, did the myth of plain vanilla come from?
Vanilla’s lackluster reputation stems in part from its particular history in America, where most people initially encountered it as a flavoring for ice cream. According to Patricia Rain, author of Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance,vanilla was first brought to America by Thomas Jefferson in the late 18th century. He had sampled vanilla sweets in France and later imported beans to make vanilla ice cream. (His recipe can be found with his papers at the Library of Congress.) The flavor, novel for its aromatic intensity, quickly became popular. Ice cream had previously been flavored with fruit or nuts (and, occasionally, with unexpected foods like brown bread), so this colorless, lumpless incarnation would have seemed plain by comparison, writes Rain. Today, the many candied and cookied ice cream flavors that use vanilla as a base reinforce the notion that vanilla is basic: merely the starting point for flavor, not flavor itself.
Several developments in the past two decades have also done much to alter vanilla’s status. The explosion of low-fat and low-carb products has created a need for strong flavors to render these foods remotely appetizing, and the flavoring industry has determined that vanilla, despite its supposed blandness, is a consistent favorite. And so vanilla has become the Zelig of the processed-food world, appearing in everything from Nilla Wafers to Absolut Vodka: ice cream, sorbet, yogurt, cookies, cakes, cream soda, colas, root beer, Frappuccinos, granola, protein powders, chocolate, malt liquor, and breath mints. After a 1991 study conducted at Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center revealed that a vanillalike fragrance reduced stress among patients undergoing MRI scans, vanilla-scented candles, incense, body lotion, shampoo, and air fresheners also began to proliferate. It may be that we are now experiencing vanilla fatigue, that our olfactory glands have become immune tothe aroma. Perhaps vanilla seems common and ordinary because—these days, anyway—it is.
But the vanilla that wearies us is rarely vanilla at all. Anywhere from 90 percent to 97 percent of vanilla-flavored products are made with vanillin, a substance found in small quantities in natural vanilla but made synthetically for processed commercial foods. Real vanilla contains hundreds of different components that contribute to its nuanced taste and aroma. It is as different from vanillin as sugar is from Equal; vanilla possesses subtlety and depth, while vanillin is loud, brassy, superficial. And yet most Americans have become accustomed to the latter. Many actually prefer it. Food manufacturers thus have little incentive to choose real vanilla: Using pure vanilla extract costs American ice cream manufacturers approximately 73 cents a gallon of ice cream, as opposed to 12 cents a gallon for extract made from vanillin, Tim Ecott writes in Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid. It is primarily premium food products that contain pure vanilla—as well as, surprisingly, Coca-Cola, which industry insiders say contains the real thing. (Perhaps this is the meaning behind Coke’s slogan.)
Real vanilla, as the makers of Coke understand, gives foods a certain je ne sais quoi. Its rich, multifaceted flavor derives in part from the careful hand-rearing the beans receive. The orchid that produces the pods is something of a diva, making vanilla one of the world’s most labor-intensive crops. The finicky plant likes damp heat, steady rainfall, and a delicate balance of sunshine and shade. It takes its time—around two to three years—to produce an odorless, pale yellow flower that, unless pollinated, dies within hours. Pollination requires artificial insemination, a manual transfer of pollen from the male anther to the female stigma. (In Mexico, where vanilla originated, an indigenous bee pollinated the flowers; vanilla could not be grown elsewhere until a slave boy on the island of Reunion discovered how to pollinate the orchid in 1841.) The seed pods, like human children, take nine months to develop. But the green, string-beanlike pods become dark brown and fragrant only after a curing process that takes several months, a kind of spa treatment for vanilla beans. According to Rain, the pods are “wrapped in clothes and stored in boxes for hours to days, massaged, manipulated, laid in the sun to dry each morning and brought in to rest each evening.” The entire cultivation process can take up to five years. Most of the world’s vanilla is grown in Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico, and Tahiti, where climate is right and land plentiful. Total production is small, around 2,000 metric tons a year, with demand historically exceeding supply. It’s no wonder that vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world. In 2004, vanilla prices peaked at $500 per kilo.
Of course, there are some who will demand real vanilla at any price. This has been especially true in the past 20 or so years, as consumers have grown wary of artificial additives and flavorings. Many now seek out quality products that use real vanilla and are willing to shell out for them. Professional chefs, too, have been using more vanilla—in the late ‘80s, it became a trendy addition to savory dishes after Wolfgang Puck famously paired lobster with vanilla sauce at Spago. Now, vanilla is a standard complement to fish or pork.
Since I had cooked only with vanilla extract, I decided to give the beans a try. I bought two dark, oily pods for $9.99 at Whole Foods and made Patricia Rain’s Vanilla Bean Rice, slicing the bean lengthwise and scraping the thousands of tiny, flavorful seeds into the saucepan. The smell of the rice was overpowering; I could have used it as an air freshener for my apartment, but it was far too fragrant to eat. And suddenly I had a vanilla epiphany. The rice, a truly bland food, forced the vanilla to take center stage. But vanilla is essentially a supporting actor. It is a sociable flavor, at its best when bringing out the best in other distinct ingredients, softening their acidity, drawing out their intensity, helping them to cohere. This is why baked goods made without vanilla lack depth and dimension, like music without a bass line. And it also explains why we associate vanilla with all things plain: Because vanilla rarely owns the spotlight, we’ve come to think of it as the wallflower of flavors, retiring and easily overlooked. Of course, like many wallflowers, vanilla has a lot going for it. It’s at once simple but sophisticated, familiar yet mysterious—and not at all bland.