A not-so-plain history of vanilla

There’s nothing “vanilla” about vanilla.

As a flavor, vanilla is consumed all over the world as a flavor additive (in ice cream and custard, for example), as an extract (in cookies), and for the beans (for your delicious Vanilla Latte).

The flavor may only be one-third of the ice cream “power trio” of chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla, but it’s the most popular flavor in the world by far. But it’s also been termed “the default” flavor by many. That’s hardly fair, as we’ll learn below.

Why vanilla gets a bad rap

How vanilla became synonymous with “average” is a story that goes way back to the 15th century.

It was the Spanish who brought vanilla back to Europe with them in the 15th century after explorer Hernando Cortes bobbed around the seas stopping off at various islands in what is now Central and South America. Cortes was pretty fond of vanilla and his benefactor, the King of Spain, was delighted by it too. Mostly his taste buds were delighted, and very soon it was a popular flavor in Spain and throughout Europe.

But how did it get to be labeled “plain”?

The short story: vanilla is extremely stable, so chefs used it as a base ingredient in many concoctions and dishes. Later, when the masses began to consume vanilla (as it became cheaper), they added other things to it, like nuts, berries, and jellies and jams. (Yum). As a result, vanilla was seen as “boring” — something that was lacking unless you added other items to it.

That sentiment has survived to this day, though recent trends have helped squash it a bit. The explosive popularity of yogurt as a commercial food item, which started in the 1960s, has helped foster vanilla as a flavor that can stand on its own legs. The beans are extremely popular today because of the coffee industry and the prominence of vanilla flavored coffee.

Ironically, though vanilla still gets tagged with the “bland” label, the ground product of the bean is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Only saffron draws a higher price on the open market.

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