By Sarah Lohman
I started baking as soon as I could stand. I’d pull up my helper stool next to my mom, and we’d add a teaspoon of vanilla to cookies, cakes, and fluffy whipped creams. But it took me until my 30s to wonder — “Wait, what even IS vanilla?”
Well, it’s the fruit of an orchid. I didn’t see that one coming, either. It’s an orchid native to Central America, and it’s the only orchid variety that produces an odorous, edible fruit. But it doesn’t have that wonderful vanilla smell right off the orchid vine; it takes month of curing–letting the beans brown in the sun–to create that unique vanilla flavor.
Vanilla is still grown and processed in its native region. It was the Maya that first consumed it; around 2,000 years ago, they used vanilla bean pods as a flavoring in chocolate drinks. When the colonists came from Europe in the 16th century, they also loved to drink chocolate, and vanilla was exported back to Europe along with cocoa beans.
It’s hard to tell when vanilla first became a stand-alone flavor; but after digging deep into historical recipes, I suspect it happened in France, sometime in the early 18th century. The French seemed to particularly love the flavor of vanilla, and tried to propagate the plant in its own colonies (eventually succeeding in Réunion and Madagascar, where much of the world’s vanilla is grown today). And my guess is vanilla became a stand alone flavor in French custards: a French version of a british custard known a burnt cream, with crispy sugary top. We know it better by it’s french name crême brulée. And rather than bruléed, that same vanilla custard can be frozen and turned into ice cream. Thomas Jefferson brought home a recipe for vanilla ice cream after his ambassadorship to Paris in 1789.
There’s so much more to the story of vanilla; in particular, an incredible connection to the history of slavery. It was Jefferson’s chef de cuisine that would have prepared his vanilla ice cream an extremely gifted man named James Hemmings. Hemmings was one of Jefferson slaves, and he negotiated his freedom after their return from Paris. And the reason we are able to consume vanilla in the quantities we do today is thanks to Edmond Albius, a brilliant black 12 year old boy who was a slave on the island of Reunion. He deduced the hand pollination method that is still used to this day, worldwide, to propagate vanilla beans.
Wine is often described as having “vanilla” flavor notes, which comes from the chemical vanillin (pronounced van-l-in). Vanillin is the primary flavor and odor component of vanilla, the most prominent among over 200 other chemicals. It’s a molecule that’s very similar in structure to lignin, a compound food in wood. When wine is stored in oak barrels, lignin from the wood oxidizes and becomes the compound vanillin. The vanillin leaches from the wood and into the wine, and that’s where those wonderful vanilla notes come from. So although your glass of wine has never touched a vanilla bean, it can still share the same delicious flavor.
The story behind the world’s love of vanilla is fascinating and revelatory. For more on this edible orchid–as well as remarkable men like Hemmings and Albius–check out the vanilla chapter in my book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. Share your favorite way to use vanilla in the comments below!