Etude (Spice Rack): From Vanilla to Pack Hunting

NB: This is a dangerous time in the life of a blog. It’s been several weeks since my last post. I  read that the vast majority of blogs make it to three posts and then grind to a halt, though I can’t recall where. I can’t speak to the reasons for this, but for me it’s been the Trump Transition. I don’t want this to be a political blog, but for the past several weeks I’ve thought about little else. This square foot is about engaging with the world more than 500 words at a time and only saying things that we know are true. Sadly in Trump’s America, that’s increasingly a form of resistance in itself. My resistance will take other forms, but probably not here.

So what to write about on an icy Winter’s day when, honestly, I feel under the weather and uninspired? A writer must need etudes just like a musician, and that’s what I’m aspiring to be. This morning while making my oatmeal, I looked at the spice rack and realized that it occupies an astonishingly rich intersection of personal history, culture, and global commerce. 

fullsizeoutput_5cVanilla has always been one of my favorite spices, and I’ve always thought it was noteworthy that the incredibly expensive fruit of an exotic orchid that originally relied on a specific species of bee for pollination came to symbolize everything that’s ordinary. If you take the time to look at the history of vanilla, you’ll realize that it’s anything but “plain, dull” as McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Slang¹ defines it. For one thing, the secret to its cultivation—a specific type of hand pollination—was discovered by an enslaved 12 year old named Edmond Albius.² Surely, this must rank as one of the most important achievements by a 12 year old in the history of the world. Albius died free and penniless, but his technique is still used to cultivate vanilla in many parts of the world, including Madagascar, where most vanilla is grown.

Hand fertilization is only the beginning of the complexity of processing vanilla. Vanilla doesn’t yield its flavor easily. Each individual vanilla pod matures at its own rate, necessitating daily harvests so that they may be picked it precisely the right time. Then the pods must be cured, a four step process that takes up to seven months during which many things can go wrong. All of this human effort—there’s very little that’s not done by hand—results in a flavor that’s literally hiding in plain sight. It’s subtle but powerful, it’s simple but hard to describe. It’s raw, earthy, floral and sensual; its name shares a latin root with ‘vagina,’ but we’ve managed to redefine it as what beige tastes like.

So how did this vanishingly rare fruit with a powerful flavor that embodies so many contradictions come to signify the absence of flavor? I blame ice cream. And, well, shit… I just did a google search on vanilla ice cream and realized that I’m not the first person to wonder about this seeming contradiction. And, well, shit… I’m beginning to have a nagging feeling that something along these lines may have been in A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman which I read in high school and pushed on everyone in college. For the rest of the how did vanilla come to represent blandness exposition, please see Amanda Fortini’s piece, “The White Stuff,” published in Slate, August 10, 2005. In turn, her piece was evidently an echo of “Vanilla Queen” Patricia Rain‘s book, Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance published November 4, 2004. Now that I see that an observation deck has been built so elaborately over that chasm, I will consider a different path (vista?) I will leave that slightly hollow sounding metaphor in place so that I can return to it in a year, yikes.

Part of writing: an original take on something is rare, your memory can betray you.

Google and Writing

I graduated from college in 1997, when search engines delivered more or less irrelevant results based on very little potential information. If you were inclined to try to research your subject online you’d rapidly give up, strap on your Jansport backpack and walk to the library while listening to Beck on your Walkman. I am among the youngest people in the US for whom that was true. Aside from grant applications and business plans, the only things I’ve written that have involved research in the digital age are lengthy political screeds commenting on Facebook posts. Writing a piece of non-fiction on a laptop with Google open in the browser window is almost unavoidably an act that puts you in parallel to others. It doesn’t take very long to realize that writing is no longer a completely solitary pursuit. It’s like hunting as a pack across time and space. Does the world need another essay about vanilla? Assuming Slate Magazine will continue to be present online indefinitely (if only on, will anyone bother to write another? Given the infinite reaches of time will every possible domain eventually yield its own disquisition on vanilla? Infinite bots vs. 1,000 monkeys.

So, Back to Vanilla

This vial with five vanilla pods was a gift from my wife, who bought it at Costco—she didn’t say so, but I saw it there on a recent trip. I can remember a time (last year even) when the only way to purchase a natural vanilla pod locally would have been through the mail. The fact that it’s now readily available is reflective of nearly all of our recent food trends: for authenticity, for doing it yourself, for natural ingredients, and even for sourcing particular varietals. However, in the case of vanilla this is an unsustainable impulse. 99% of vanillin (the aromatic compound in vanilla) is chemically synthesized—mostly from petrochemicals. The demand for natural vanilla outstripped supply in the mid-nineteenth century and only became the world’s most popular flavoring on the strength of artificial vanilla. Fulfilling the public’s expectations for natural ingredients, in the case of vanilla, is impossible. Large companies like Nestlé, Hershey, and others—who have told the public that they are switching  to all natural ingredients—are having to isolate naturally occurring vanillin in other botanicals. Or, more dramatically, to genetically  engineer yeasts and other organisms to produce vanillin.³ Though a little disturbing, this is good news, as climate change is likely to disrupt global vanilla production at some point in the future.

I can tell you the exact moment when I came to think of vanilla as my favorite flavor of ice cream. It was my Junior year of high school when I came across Ben & Jerry’s Pete Seeger branded ice cream with vanilla flecks in it. And that’s a fact that you won’t be able to Google until later on when a robot indexes this page. (Seriously, if there’s a reference to Pete Seeger having been a flavor of ice cream, I can’t find it on Google).

1. McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. S.v. “vanilla.” Retrieved January 17 2017 from
2. Wikipedia contributors, “Vanilla,”  Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed January 17, 2017).
3. Melody M. Bomgardner, “The Problem with Vanilla,” Chemical and Engineering News, Sept. 12, 2016. (accessed January 17, 2017).

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