IF, PRESENTED WITH all the ice cream flavors in the world, you ask for vanilla, you are making a declaration: “Not for me a life of adventure. I choose the road more taken.” This is the default, the dead end, where imagination is extinguished. In idiomatic usage, per the dictionary, “vanilla” (or, more damningly, “plain vanilla,” as if that were not redundant) means “having no special or extra features.” So: the bare minimum, the absence of flourish, the annihilation of fun — buttoned-up and bougie, innocuousness incarnate. In a word, a bore.
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How then am I woozy and heavy-lidded in the presence of a single vanilla bean? It lies on my desk, skinny as a twig, with a little curling hook at one end, like a fossilized crochet needle, rough yet pliant to the touch. I am trying to write but the room is possessed by that scent, a summons of honeysuckle, sun-fat figs and red wine, of the dank sweetness of soil when the rain has soaked through it.
What is this disconnect between the genial vanilla of the mind and its heady, almost unruly scent and flavor? Depending on where the beans are harvested, vanilla may taste dark-sweet, of smoke and cherries; or earthy as chocolate and coffee; or buttery, or caramelly or plummy; or stung by the faintest numbing hint of anise. But almost none of the vanilla in global circulation comes from beans at all. More than 99 percent of the world’s vanillin — the chemical compound in vanilla that is predominantly responsible for its aroma and flavor — is artificially synthesized, mostly from guaiacol, a viscous oil commercially produced using petrochemicals, and a smaller amount from lignin, a waste product in the processing of wood pulp into paper. (A trace of lignin may be found in every book’s pages, which may explain why antique bookstores and the musty back shelves of libraries smell so comforting as their volumes decay.)
From top, vanilla in its various permutations: a meringue twist in a pool of vanilla bean paste and vanilla wafer cookies beneath a whole Tahitian vanilla bean.Credit…Photograph by Melody Melamed. Set design by Jocelyn Cabral
Only in the past decade, with pressure from consumers seeking more natural ingredients — whether as redress for skyrocketing rates of diabetes and heart disease, a way of asserting control over what we eat as we’ve grown distant from and suspicious of its corporate sources, a concern for sustainability and the environment or simply a desire in our alienated age to return to an imagined authenticity — have food companies started to back away from synthetic vanilla, at least publicly. In 2015, Nestlé USA and General Mills announced that they would stop using artificial flavors. (Note that biosynthetic alternatives, derived from the likes of rice bran, clove oil or turmeric, may be legally labeled “natural” in the United States, although these represent a tiny part of the market and, being at an early stage of development and production, are not yet economically competitive with artificial vanilla.)
Vanilla isn’t the first ingredient to have been diminished by mass production — which made it more widely available, though as a pale shadow of itself — and then rehabilitated and revived in all its richness and multiplicity. Once the average coffee drinker in America was content with a murky picker upper that might as well have been inky water, knowing little of arabica and robusta beans and the distinctions among brews from Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia (bright and floral, akin to tea); Mokha, Yemen (malty, with coriander and black currants); and Kona, Hawaii (hints of hazelnuts and mellowed brown sugar). Milk chocolate used to be the default chocolate, the origin of the cacao — and the likelihood that it was harvested using child and slave labor — passed over in silence. Now origin is all, with many craft chocolate makers focusing on bars that use beans from one country or even just one farm, both to showcase idiosyncratic notes of place (stone fruit, young bananas, buttercream, sandalwood, roses) and to underscore the importance of a relationship to the farmers themselves: of knowing their stories.
The path of vanilla to our table is less straightforward, and its provenance is often still elusive on commercial labels. But already you can find vanilla beans from Madagascar at Walmart and order beans and bottles for making homemade vanilla extract (alcohol not included) on Amazon. Small companies like VanillaPura and Native Vanilla offer rarer specimens online, from the Malabar Coast of India, the Amazon rainforest and the Mexican Yucatán; Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania, Uganda, Ecuador and Peru; and the islands of Comoros, Oahu, the Marquesas and Vanuatu. You are enticed with notes of toffee, guava, flowers, earth, ripeness, shimmer. In a word, the world.
FROM A PROFIT perspective, the appeal of synthetic vanillin is clear. True vanilla is a demanding crop, so labor-intensive that at times the market value of the beans has surpassed that of silver, weight for weight. And since each bean yields only 2 percent vanillin at best, the cost of pure vanilla is even higher. In 2017, after a cyclone decimated farms in the mountains of northeast Madagascar, where around 80 percent of the world’s natural vanilla is grown, the price of beans leaped to more than $600 per kilogram, which, at the rate of 20 grams of vanillin per kilogram of beans, comes to $30,000 per kilogram of pure vanilla. As of 2012, 80.7 percent of the country’s population subsisted on $2.15 a day and, although the vanilla boom may have lifted incomes, it also radically inflated prices — a chicken was suddenly $10 — and sparked a proliferation of crime, with machete patrols required to protect the fields (as chronicled by Wendell Steavenson for NPR in 2019).
The vanilla bean on my desk comes from the small Hawaiian town of Laie on Oahu’s North Shore. It’s longer and darker than the other vanilla beans in my cupboard, its fragrance more insistently narcotic. Saili Levi, who was born in Samoa and moved to Laie at age 7, started planting vines in his backyard in 2018 after a friend and colleague at the local water company found one growing in the wild. He now runs a farm, Laie Vanilla Company, full time on a larger lot, with dark mesh panels slung above to shade the drapery of vines, and enlists his three young daughters to keep vigil over the plants. (His wife is a nurse.) Hawaii is the only place in the United States where vanilla is commercially harvested, with only a few farms currently dedicated to it, and Levi’s is the only one on Oahu.
This is difficult, uncertain work. To begin with, while the vanilla orchid — planifolia is the species most widely grown — is a hermaphrodite (like most flowering plants), with both male and female parts, it can’t pollinate itself. So when botanists first attempted to transplant it outside its native Mexico, far from its natural pollinators, it wouldn’t bear fruit. Europeans had to make do with beans brought by ship across the Atlantic until, in 1841, a 12-year-old enslaved child named Edmond, toiling on a plantation on the island of Réunion (at the time a French colony) in the Indian Ocean, figured out how to coax vanilla beans from a barren vine. He had been taught to pollinate separate plants by hand; with planifolia, he adapted that method to a single plant, gently lifting the flap between the male anther and the female stigma so the pollen from one could be thumbed off on the other, in what botanists call marriage.
Hand-pollination can be performed only when a flower blooms, which happens once a year and lasts a matter of hours. Fortunately, each orchid may bear as many as 20 flowers over the course of a couple of months, although growers warn that it’s best not to try to pollinate them all, to encourage fewer but plumper beans. On the vine, they look like something between haricots verts and very slender green bananas in bunches. Once plucked, they must be cured, which can take months, in a process that includes being blanched in hot water or thrust in a freezer to halt the ripening; wrapped in wool or kept moist in a hot box to sweat so the starches break down into the coveted vanillin; then dried in the sun or a dehydrator, with constant monitoring to make sure they don’t get brittle, and left in a sealed container for the scent to deepen.
Within decades of Edmond’s innovation, Réunion had usurped Mexico’s status as the world’s primary exporter of vanilla (a title now held by its neighbor, Madagascar). Edmond was freed under French law in 1848 and gained a last name, Albius, but received neither official recognition nor reward. He died destitute at age 51, with botanists still squabbling over whether he deserved credit.
IN THE 18TH century, vanilla was the opposite of bland: an incitement to lust. The Marquis de Sade purportedly spiked desserts for guests with vanilla and Spanish fly, and one German physician prescribed it as the Viagra of his day, claiming to have turned “no fewer than 342 impotent men … into astonishing lovers,” as recounted in Tim Ecott’s “Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid” (2005). As an aphrodisiac, it had a dash of sleaze.
But ubiquity is the death of cool. Today, vanilla appears in around 18,000 products worldwide, according to Symrise, a German fragrances and flavors company whose founders were the first to synthesize vanillin in 1874. Did the development of a cheaper, manufactured version lead to the onslaught of vanilla-scented products, or was it the other way around — are we to blame; did our own craving for vanilla bring about its degradation? The culinary historian Sarah Lohman notes in “Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine” (2016) that Americans alone consume an amount of vanillin equivalent to 638 million vanilla beans’ worth a year. As the science journalist Melody M. Bomgardner reported in “Chemical and Engineering News” in 2016, there aren’t enough vanilla beans in the world to satisfy our hunger.
This is the paradox, that vanilla is among the most beloved of spices, even as it’s also the most disdained: an epithet for flavorlessness despite the millions who long for its flavor, which is defined as much by scent as anything immediately legible on the tongue. In a study released by researchers at the Stockholm-based Karolinska Institute last year, when subjects around the world were asked to rate a range of scents, the near unanimous favorite was 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, a.k.a. vanillin. (Ethyl butyrate, with its waft of nectarines in heat, was the runner-up; isovaleric acid, a factor in human sweat, ranked last.)
This proved true even among respondents who, given their geographic location and cultural background, wouldn’t have encountered the scent before: Some were selected from isolated groups of hunter-gatherers like the Maniq in the hills of southern Thailand and the Chachi on the Pacific coast of Ecuador. These were people who experienced the scent of vanilla without context, untinged by nostalgia for, say, a milkshake dripping down the sides of a tall, wide-mouthed glass or girls in the ’90s daubing Thierry Mugler’s Angel perfume on their throats for an aura half-cotton candy, half-carnal. They knew nothing of the vanilla in your mother’s shortbread cookie-cutter hearts or the crackly, suspended-breath shell of a Pavlova in summer. They loved it still.
IT’S GOOD TO remember that the use of “vanilla” as a pejorative is mostly confined to American English. (In Japan, the connotations of “vanilla” — familiarity and friendliness, the implication of an endearing innocence — led executives at All Nippon Airways in 2013 to give their lower-priced subsidiary the name Vanilla Air; it has since merged with Peach Aviation.) Blame it on ice cream. Already in the 1890s, vanilla ice cream was the baseline flavor in America, the plain vanilla that over the course of the 20th century went from straightforward and reliable to dull and ordinary — not so much a change in meaning as a shift in emphasis.
So inseparable is vanilla from its manifestation in ice cream that, for Americans, it comes perilously close to a synonym for “white,” even though the beans and seeds are black. Earlier this year, a so-called vanilla girl aesthetic had a moment on TikTok as an embrace of neutral tones and minimalist makeup, along with cozy atmospherics (candles, fluffy duvets), then earned a backlash from those who saw it as exclusionary, valorizing the lifestyles of skinny white girls (which of course makes it not so different from most viral TikTok aesthetics). In surveys by the International Dairy Foods Association starting in 2012, American consumers routinely favored vanilla ice cream — until last year, when it was finally dislodged from the top spot, falling to third place behind chocolate and cookies and cream. Are we finally wearying of predictability? Do we want more?
Or have we misunderstood vanilla all along? Many of us are so accustomed to the taste of artificial vanillin that we can only vaguely recall the dark cured beans. Instead we conjure images of pallor (angel food cake! yogurt! meringue!) and a vibe. And maybe this is vanilla’s trick, to elude us. As an ingredient, it can be deceptively reticent, seeming to cede the spotlight to the more forceful pleasures of sugar and cream. Yet it transfigures every flavor it encounters. It calms and contours, steadies and exalts. It is the spice with the Midas touch that makes more more.
All these hours at my desk and the scent of the vanilla bean still holds, still insists. Later I will slit it open with a knife and scrape out the wet seeds, tiny fertile things sprung from their desiccated sheath, obsidian black and gleaming like caviar. Maybe they are destined for a quivering leche flan or a quick-to-vanish cupcake. Maybe I will hardly know they’re there, save for the telltale dark flecks rippling across an otherwise bland surface, and that taste somewhere between the reservoirs of sun in a mango and sugar brought just short of burning, at the far border before all sweetness ceases. That reminds me: This is something that came from the earth.
Set design by Jocelyn Cabral. Photo assistants: Patrick Lyn, Gloria Cook. Set designer’s assistant: Adrian Ababovic