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4 october 2021

"Vanilla" once meant something highly deluxe and desirable, though that was long before I acquired the English language, so far back that I can't even dredge up a song lyric or line from a poem to illustrate this connotation of excellence. Even the Oxford English Dictionary is no help; as early as 1955 the term "plain vanilla" was well-entrenched, and by the '70s and '80s "vanilla" had become synonymous with "default," "unadorned," and frankly "boring."

Vanilla ennui applies foods and by extension to consumer products and styles of doing all sorts of things, and especially to sex. In one of the weirder reconvergences in etymological history, "vanilla" comes originally from Spanish vaina, from Latin vagina – both the orchid pod and the body part likened figuratively to "sheath," the root meaning of "vagina." And now vanilla sex is penis-in-vagina: cis, hetero, and pre-eminently missionary.

When the first Spanish missionaries embarked in Mexico, as Rosa Abreu-Runkel relates in her global history, one of the many useful foods they encountered was the vanilla bean. Vanilla grows as the edible pods of a New World orchid vine … I say "edible," but as with chocolate, it must have taken some trial and error to realize the flavorful potential of vanilla. The pods must be dried, cured, sometimes baked into submission; and even then you can't just snack on them; they are an additive, and they complement a peculiar range of other foods and flavors: notably, chocolate itself.

The active ingredient, vanillin, is a prosaic-looking little twist of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen atoms, so simple to fabricate that a large industry in synthetic vanillin grew up, starting in the late 19th century. The terroir and grace notes of exceptional real vanilla are still prized, but the basic frontal assault of vanillin, with its deep-seated associations of sweetness, comfort, and the blessedly ordinary, is at heart the meeting of a very simple chemical with human scent receptors.

As I sometimes mention here, I am so hyposmic that I should not even be allowed to write about food; yet vanilla is one of the elemental impressions that does get through to me. If a lot of people share my ability to detect vanilla but little else, the universal appeal of the pod makes sense. Other flavorings may be graspable only by hyperaesthetes; vanilla is for everybody.

Though sometimes it took a while to catch on. One of the things I learned from Abreu-Runkel's book is that Twinkies, the most vanilla of snack foods, were originally filled with banana cream. Until the 1940s, actually, when banana rationing forced the makers to replace the banana filling with white stuff flavored, I assume, with synthetic vanillin. Though as to that, a list of Twinkie ingredients online cops only to "Natural and Artificial Flavors." Perhaps Twinkies now have no flavor at all, and are getting by on people's memories of the vanilla they used to contain.

Vanilla is not one of the best titles in Reaktion's Edible series. Too often, Abreu-Runkel substitutes stretches of general exposition for commentary on vanilla itself, as when she promises to examine how various indigenous Mexican cultures used vanilla but doesn't deliver much more than a recap of the history of each culture in general.

I would have welcomed more vanilla anecdotes, but I guess I will have to supply one myself. In the late 1960s, my family moved from Illinois to southern New Jersey. To orient us in this alien territory, my father went out almost upon arrival and bought a brick of vanilla ice cream. But to our horror, there were little black specks throughout the ice cream, resembling iron filings. We dumped it out, he got another, more black specks. Finally somebody explained: the black specks were the powder from ground-up vanilla beans. In the East it wasn't vanilla unless you could see some of the real thing.

Looking back over 50 years, I suspect there wasn't much vanilla in American ice cream, West or East, in those days. The blinding white stuff in Chicago was probably flavored with vanillin, but the speckled concoction in New Jersey was likely full of vanillin as well. The specks were … specks: probably not iron filings after all, though the stuff might have been healthier if they were. But our misunderstanding does point to an oddity of vanilla. Its signature color is white, but vanilla itself, after curing, is deep black. Sometimes symbolism gets reversed, that way.

Abreu-Runkel, Rosa. Vanilla: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2020.