Day 33: Vanilla.

Hernán Cortés brought both chocolate and vanilla to the Old World, and let me say it up front: Vanilla wins.

The first time I truly loved vanilla was when I was 9 years old, on vacation in Mexico, where I probably got ice cream made with Mexican vanilla, which is so far still my favorite. I have no recollections of any other food from that entire trip, but that ice cream has lingered for over 20 years.

Vanilla comes originally from Mexico. It is a flat-leaved orchid vine. The flowers are greenish-yellow, and not the most beautiful of orchid flowers. It's a touchy plant. It needs its friends. The roots won't grow without a specific fungus. You (or a bee) (but mostly you, most vanilla is pollinated by hand) have one day to pollinate the flower before it dies. In the wild, about 1% of vanilla flowers end up pollinated. It takes five months for a vanilla pod to reach maturity--it looks like a long green bean. Then it can be cured, which is the way you likely see it.

A twelve-year-old enslaved boy named Edmond Albius invented a technique for pollinating vanilla by hand. It's not the quickest method but it's what we've got.

Vanillin, the compound responsible for most of the flavor of real vanilla, is only one of 171 chemicals found inside those dark pods. Artificial vanillin is created from wood--weird things happen to the pulp leftover from paper making and a delicious tasting chemical ends up in my lipstick, or my muffin, or whatever. Some artificial vanilla flavoring comes from, no joke, the castor sacs of the mature beaver. These sacs are scent producing organs that make a yellowish liquid that beavers rub on trees and things. The FDA has approved it for use in food and perfumes, so...natural flavoring.

The Totonac people who lived on the east coast of Mexico were the first we know of who ate vanilla. They believed that the first vanilla plant sprang up from the drops of blood spilled when a pair of lovers were beheaded. A princess and her mortal lover, forbidden to be together.

I'd like to find time to write about New York vanilla, French vanilla, all the preparations and subtleties. But it will have to wait. For now just remember the long circuitous route your dessert has taken, from a heartbroken princess to a conquistador returning home with treasure to a tiny island in the Indian ocean, where a young enslaved boy changed the world and gave us all vanilla. It's been a trip.


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