The Epic, Sensational, Anything-But-Plain Story of Vanilla

Kirsty Begg / Stocksy
Kirsty Begg / Stocksy

The more you come to know about vanilla, the more it seems the age-old descriptor “plain vanilla” is meant ironically—like a big guy whose nickname is ‘Tiny.’ As the only variety out of 25,000 species of orchid that produces an agriculturally useful product, vanilla is literally unique—and it could hardly be more exotic: It’s one of the most complex flavors in existence (with more than 200 flavor compounds), it’s the second-most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) and its history is steeped in intrigue, ancient civilizations, piracy, and brutal conquest. Oh, and there’s a 12-year-old, child-prodigy slave with a starring role.

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The epic tale begins in the 15th century, in the mountainous regions of Mexico, where a tribe known as the Totonacs were the first civilization known to grow and cultivate vanilla pods. They mainly used them for medicinal or religious purposes, instead of culinary ones. But even without sampling much of vanilla’s glorious taste, the Totonacs believed it was a gift from the gods. Literally. In Totonac lore, vanilla orchids sprouted from the blood of a runaway deity and her forbidden mortal lover, both of whom were captured and slain by the princess’s father. Hey, if you’ve ever seen the way the vine-like vanilla orchid spreads itself along the limbs of a tree, the story is not that farfetched.

"In Totonac lore, vanilla orchids sprouted from the blood of a runaway deity and her forbidden mortal lover, both of whom were captured and slain by the princess’s father."

But their mastery over this ambrosia didn’t last long. The Aztecs swooped in and conquered the Totonacs, forcing them to give up their sacred vanilla. The Aztecs began demanding tax from the Totonacs in the form of vanilla beans, and leaned heavily into its deliciously edible properties. They discovered (and modern science would back them up on this) that it had aphrodisiac potencies, and they combined vanilla with cacao in a ceremonial concoction called “xocolatl” (or chocolatl, also known as the original hot chocolate). Since the vanilla orchid turns black after maturing and being harvested, the Aztecs called it the “black flower.”

The Aztecs rode high, reigning over their precious flower—and all of Mesoamerica—until Spanish explorers landed on their shores. Despite the Spaniards’ obviously hostile intentions, the Aztec emperor Montezuma is said to have offered Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés a traditional goblet of vanilla-infused hot chocolatl. Cortés drank it gladly, managed to acquire the recipe, and proceeded to end Montezuma’s life and dominion.

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Cortés brought the vanilla-flavored Mexican hot chocolate back to Europe, where Hugh Morgan, an apothecary to England’s Queen Elizabeth, had the bright idea to deploy vanilla by itself—leading to a starring role for the black flower in a wide range of products, including perfumes, tobacco, and alcohol. Vanilla consumption took off in the budding United States shortly thereafter, largely thanks to Thomas Jefferson, who was known to add it to his ice cream. Jefferson assembled one of the earliest recipes for vanilla ice cream, now preserved in the Library of Congress. Demand for this new and beguiling flavor spread across the US during the 18th century, and vanilla soon started appearing in domestic cookbooks and in soft drinks like Pemberton’s Coca-Cola.

Today there are five main variations of vanilla, each with slightly different characteristics. Tahitian beans produce more of a floral tone, while Indonesian vanilla carries a smoky, woody flavor. French vanilla doesn’t necessarily come from France, but is named after the French style of ice cream made from a vanilla custard base. Bourbon vanilla plants come from Réunion and Madagascar—islands in the Indian Ocean off the Southeast coast of Africa—and give off buttery, rich notes. Mexican vanilla is bold, with smoky undertones.

"Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave, discovered that vanilla plants could be pollinated by hand or a blade of grass. His techniques are still in use today."

The Mexican variety also figures uniquely in the black flower’s spread across the globe. Mexican vanilla orchids had always depended on native bees to thrive, but in the 1700s, when smugglers brought vanilla vines out of the region to Réunion, the plants—now a world away from the bees—failed to grow. Enter Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave, who discovered that vanilla plants could be pollinated by hand or a blade of grass. His techniques are still used today. That’s right, an enslaved 12-year-old devised methods of vanilla orchid pollination that revolutionized the industry and are still in use 125 years later. Those methods are labor-intensive, though, and that’s the reason why vanilla and pure vanilla extract are so expensive.

Speaking of vanilla extract, here’s a hack for the next time you’ve got a stocked baking pantry and plenty of whiskey and rum—but are out of mixers. Take a few dashes of vanilla extract into your glass and add a pinch of cinnamon. Smoky liquors and barrel-aged spirits like whiskey, bourbon, and rum already contain traces of sweet, vanilla flavors produced from matured and toasted wooden casks. This makes them all the more complementary alongside other vanilla-based components.

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Though vanilla’s widespread popularity has turned it into somewhat of a standard commodity, don’t let its ubiquity blind you to its complex and exotic character. In fact, that’s how the whole “plain vanilla” thing got started in the first place. In the same way a favorite song loses its novelty after being played over and over, vanilla simply became a victim of its own success. But it’s time to look at it through a new set of eyes, and re-acknowledge its true properties. A world-class spice with an epic history, vanilla is many, many things—but plain is certainly not one of them.