The interesting cultural history of vanilla

 vanilla beans

When something is bland, it's often dismissed as being "plain vanilla." But as NPR Food shows us, the history behind vanilla is anything but boring. They explore the origins of vanilla bean cultivation and its traditional uses.

Vanilla comes from the Totonac Indians in what's now Mexico. In addition to using them for medicine, the Totonac used the beans as their required tribute to the Aztecs. The Aztecs were the first to use vanilla beans for flavoring. They mixed them with other things, including cacao in their chocolate drink (which was not sweetened). 

When Europeans were first exposed to vanilla, they went wild for the flavor, thanks in part to proselytizing by Queen Elizabeth I. This increased popularity caused a problem, because no one knew how to cultivate or efficiently process vanilla beans. That is because the beans "are nestled in pods that grow on gnarly vines that can get as long as 350 feet and have orchids that you might expect to see in a flower shop."

An enterprising 12-year-old black slave, Edmond Albius, was the first to understand how to make the process work. Albius "discovered that the vanilla plant could be pollinated by hand using a blade of grass or a swipe of a thumb. It was effective if labor-intensive, but once people understood how to pollinate the plants, vanilla as a flavor became more accessible.

Photo of How to split a vanilla pod from  Great British Chefs - Chef Recipes

1 Comment

  • sweetchefgirl  on  7/19/2015 at 2:48 PM

    Thanks for the interesting read!

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