The Vanilla Papers

Dried vanilla pods ripened with flavor.

When I conceived of my book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, it was actually vanilla that clued me in to the fact that foods taste differently in different time periods.

 In high school I worked in a history museum set in the year 1848, where I donned a daily costume and cooked in a period kitchen. The first thing I remember mixing up in that old kitchen was a yellow butter cake, dense and sweet. We wouldn’t imagine baking a yellow cake today without a teaspoon or more of vanilla extract, but my golden yellow pound cake contained all the other trappings of a modern cake, from white sugar to yellow butter, but no vanilla. 

It would take about four hundred years, from colonization to vanilla cakes. Vanilla is indigenous to the area near Papantla in Veracruz Mexico. Botanists believe that vanilla evolved 65,000 years ago, around the Gulf of Mexico from Papantla to Guatemala, areas that have been populated by humans for at least 5,000 years.  It’s impossible to say who first noticed vanilla. This edible species of the orchid family doesn’t smell like much for most of the year. The blossom matures into a yellow-tipped seedpod, before blackening in the sun. In this final stage, when the bean was shriveled and dry, it would smell so sweetly of the scent we know and love.

 Whoever picked the first vanilla bean existed before modern memory; the Totonac people of Veracrus credit its origin to a legend, the spilled blood of a pure princess priestess who was killed alongside her lover. According to a memorial sculpture in Papantla, “When the grass dried, from their blood began to sprout a shrub, with thick foliage giving birth to a climbing orchid covering the thick foliage with amazing speed and exuberance, perfuming the air with its aroma.”  Although the Totonac region would one day become the center of the international vanilla trade, there is no evidence of Totonacs using vanilla within their own culture. Even the native word for it, xanath, simply means flower.

 It was the Maya who first began to cultivate it. Around 2,000 years ago, vanilla was a popular addition to Mayan hot chocolate. The first written account of vanilla comes from two Aztec students, inscribed in a 1552 herbal tome. They wrote in their native language of Nahautl, which was then translated into Latin. They give a recipe for a mixture of herbs to be worn in a talisman around the neck, to protect a traveler.  The accompanying illustration depicts the most important ingredient, tlilxochitl, a vine with pale yellow flowers and black seed pods. A beautiful little sketch, and the first depiction of vanilla.

 In about 1750, the Totonac people  were the first to cultivate vanilla in our modern conception of the word: they planted farmland with vanilla wines, training them up the trunks of small trees.  Plantations proliferated by 1760.  The farmers would harvest underripe beans and bring them to a centralized curing house. This process produced a higher quality product than other Central American vanilla exporters who gathered the beans after they dried on the vine. Additionally, as the domesticated plants produced larger, healthier fruit. By the end of the 18th century, Totonacs around the Gulf Coast produced about 1 million beans for export.

 Today, the Totonac’s traditional homeland is still a major vanilla growing region. I visited it in part because of my passion to learn about popular ingredients, and in part because the region happens to be next to Costa Esmeralda, a stretch of Gulf Coast beach that it remains largely undeveloped. You can stand on its sandy shores and not see a single person in either direction for miles. 

 Gaya is the largest plantation in what is known as the Totonacapan area, which includes the states Veracruz, Hidalgo, Puebla and Oaxaca. The plantation was founded in 1873 by an Italian immigrant with experience raising silkworms and a knack for fussy agriculture; it’s now run by fourth generation Gayas, Norma and her brother. If you've ever purchased Mexican vanilla from Nielsen-Massey, you’ve had vanilla from the Gaya plantation. The companies have  been working together for over 100 years.

 Only saffron and cardamom are more expensive to grow than vanilla; the process is intricate and laborious from start to finish. I met Norma Gaya for a tour and, accompanied by her floppy-eared basset hound Scooby, Norma took us to visit the nearby plantation of one of the 400 vanilla growing families that work with the Gayas. We passed through a gate guarded by a sleepy, old horse sentry. He woke up and moved out of the road to let our truck pass; peeking in the rearview mirror, I saw him curl up like a cat behind us and go right back to sleep.  We pulled up to an orchard: a semi-organized patch of trees carved out of the surrounding wetlands, grasslands, and jungle. There was a crop of oranges, ripening from green to rust, and draped on the tree limbs like Christmas garland were vanilla vines. By growing these two plants together, the family could harvest two crops at different times of year.

 “We are doing an experiment here. We are going to put black pepper, then cocoa tree, and then vanilla.” Norma said of their future plans for farms like this one. The two vines will buddy up, and grow up the base of the chocolate tree. “Why? Because it is expensive for the vanilla growers, and most of them—these are very poor people—you’re going to have three things to sell.”

From the time the vines are planted, it will take four years to produce fruit. All the vines will bloom in the month of March, yellow-green flowers with long elephant trunk-like openings that look like they could start talking like an Alice in Wonderland garden. Pollinating vanilla requires an army of seasonal employees. 

 “In March, it is one month that we have the orchid,” Norma explained. “And it only opens up two hours, in the morning. If you don’t pollinate, it closes and dies. Every day for one month, it’s seven days working, pollinating.”  Each blossom represents one future vanilla bean.

 When I visited, the vanilla pods were about halfway through their ripening season, and dangled from the vines like sets of long-fingered hands. It took about nine months before the beans were ready to be harvested and cured. 

 The Gaya’s curing plant, a massive and meticulously clean facility, permanently smells of cedar, smoke, and vanilla. Vanillin is not naturally produced by the vanilla orchid; it appears only after months of sweating and curing. A green vanilla bean, picked from the vine, has no scent. When the harvested vanilla beans are ‘killed’ by exposing them to heat, the cell walls break down and hydrolysis occurs, allowing chemicals from all over the vanilla bean  to move around and meet up. Glucovanillin, known as a flavor precursor, jams with enzymes that break it down into different chemicals, like vanillin. Additionally, other flavor chemicals develop as a result of oxidation when the beans are exposed to the air and sun to dry. When the curing process is completed, a single vanilla bean is made up of about 250 different chemicals including, sugars, volatile compounds, and essential oils. Beans must contain a minimum of 2% vanillin to be sold as beans or used in extract. 

 After vanilla was exported to Europe in the 16th century, plants were propagated all over the world, eventually resulting in the modern vanilla industry. Today, only about 10% of America’s vanilla is produced in Mexico, while more than 60% is grown in Madagascar. But due to several seasons of severe weather on the African island that has destroyed crops, the price of vanilla has shot up. Perhaps in the near future, more of America's vanilla will come from the homeland of vanilla in Mexico, and from plantations like the Gaya’s.

My book Eight Flavors looked at ingredients that came into the American kitchen over time and stuck around. My next book, Endangered Eating: Exploring America’s Vanishing Foods, looks at American ingredients on the verge of extinction. Expect my new book in January 2023 from W.W. Norton & Co.


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judith colcladure

over 1 year ago

the name of the author of this book EITH FLAVORS THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE AMERICAN CUISINE.. please name of the author thanks , very interesting subject

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