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Exploring Vanilla: An Amazing History and Innovative Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.



The tea was steeping when she decided she was hungry. On impulse, she took a jar of strawberry jam from the cupboard. It, too, was local, put up the fall before by one of the island women. Unscrewing the lid, she pried a layer of wax from the top and, taking a spoon, sampled it straight from the jar. She closed her eyes, isolating the sense of taste for the greatest enjoyment. Strawberries... and vanilla? Eyes popping open, she peered into the glass until she spotted the bean among the berries.

— Barbara Delinsky, "Sweet Salt Air"

When Did Vanilla Become a Bad Thing?

My daughter has been looking for a new home; not a starter (she has one of those), not a make-it-do home. This one will be her dream home, her forever home.

I’ve been in her shoes, and I’ve also been in the position of selling a house.

Real estate professionals will tell you to put about half of the furniture in storage, empty the closets, remove personal photographs, and present a blank canvass so that potential buyers will not be distracted by your things, your clutter, and your personality. They need room to breathe so that they can picture their furniture, their photos, and their clutter in your space. (Apparently, homebuyers have no imagination.)

Home sellers are also cautioned to tone down the bright colors. Use neutrals—ivory, cream, beige, gray—nothing too bold or dramatic. The sellers of the homes I’ve seen have certainly taken that advice. Not only are the walls neutral, the floors, the furniture, and the kitchen cabinets; everything within those four walls is blah. I found myself calling them “vanilla houses.” And then it struck me, when did vanilla become synonymous for dull, bland, and boring?

Vanilla used to be so much more than that.

One Thousand Years Ago

Long before European explorers traversed the Atlantic, the Totonac people of (what is now) east-central Mexico dwelled in an area framed by the Sierra Madre to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. The geography of their land created two cultures—those who lived inland enjoyed a cool and rainy climate, growing maize and squash, tending livestock and raising poultry. They formed central villages surrounded by farmlands. Those in the coastal lowland had a hot, humid climate. They lived in scattered farmhouses and raised bees, poultry, and hogs. But both groups had one secret, a plant, the Tlilxochitl vine, a medicinal plant growing in their tiny corner of the world, and seemingly nowhere else.


It Was Highly Prized

In 1480 A.D., the Aztecs conquered the Totonac people and forced them to pay “tributes” (a transfer of goods and wealth). Make no mistake, these payments were not a sign of allegiance; the Totonac people were forced to submit to the stronger, more powerful Aztec. Among the many tributes were the fruits of the Tlilxochitl vine. We call it vanilla bean.

In 1518 Hernán Cortéz was placed in command of an expedition to explore and conquer the interior of Mexico. His first stop was Trinidad, Cuba where he hired additional soldiers, 16 horses, and an interpreter, Geronimo de Aguilar. Aguilar was a Franciscan priest who had survived a shipwreck and eight-year enslavement by the Maya and during those eight years, he learned the language of the native people.

April 21, 1519, a fleet of 11 Spanish galleons dropped anchor off the east coast of Mexico. Cortéz and his army of 550 soldiers claimed the land for God and King and were met by the Totonac people. This was not a brief visit; Cortéz took the time to gain intelligence from the Totonac and earn their trust. He desired an audience with the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II and dispatched a courier 200 miles to carry the message. The messenger explained that he had been commissioned by a fair-skinned, bearded man accompanied by man-beasts (the riders on horseback). At this Moctezuma’s blood ran cold. He was well aware of the ancient legend that Quetzalcoatl, a pale, bearded ruler-god would one day return to reclaim his kingdom. And the past decade had been rife with frightening omens—floods, fires, fiery comets, and the voice of a woman wailing in the night, night after night. Had the prophecy come to light?



Moctezuma thought carefully and issued a guarded response. He cautioned that the journey was grueling with passage through deserts, over mountains, and near dangerous enemy territories. He hoped his warnings would dissuade the foreigners from paying him an unwelcome visit. And he sweetened the message with extravagant gifts of finery and gold.

Moctezuma’s gifts had the opposite effect. Cortéz was not content with a mere smattering of trinkets. The gold whetted his appetite for even greater wealth. He sank his ships so that his army had no choice but to follow—desertion was out of the question. An alliance was formed with the Totonac leaders. Cortéz’ army was joined by 1,000 native warriors. One by one they overcame every obstacle, adding allies to their ranks with members of the Tlaxcalan and Cholulan tribes.

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When they finally reached their destination, Moctezuma himself greeted them, escorting them around the city and satisfying their pride with lavish banquets. Oh, I almost forgot to mention—Moctezuma offered Cortéz chocolatl, a drink made of ground corn, cacao beans, honey, and vanilla pods.

Of course, there’s more to the story of Moctezuma and Cortéz, but you’re here to learn about vanilla. Let’s just say that things didn’t go well for Moctezuma, and Cortéz took the vanilla beans back to Europe. Chocolatl became the “in” thing for the rich and famous and the rest, as they say, is history.

But Wait, There's More

In 1602 Hugh Morgan, the royal pharmacist for Queen Elizabeth I, had the brilliant idea of using vanilla, not with chocolate, but all on its own as a flavoring. That set the stage for the return of vanilla to the Western Hemisphere.

Americans were not much familiar with vanilla until ice cream became popular in the late eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson discovered its virtues in France and on arriving back in the United States in 1789 sent for some pods from Paris, which must have come from Central America in the first place. By the 19th century, Americans developed a passion for vanilla, especially as an ice-cream flavoring.

— Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink,/John F. Mariani [Lebhar Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 338)

Not All Vanillas Are the Same

Today, vanilla beans are no longer raised solely by the Totonac people; they are grown in numerous countries around the world which means that not all vanilla beans are the same. In addition to four distinct varieties of vanilla, the essence of each one is influenced by soil and climate. Just as with wine grapes or coffee or cocoa beans, nuanced flavors come from variances in altitude, terrain, and weather.

  • Madagascar Bourbon: Despite the name, these beans have nothing to do with whiskey. The taste is sweet and creamy, and what we think of when we hear the word vanilla. This strain of vanilla is the plant that originated in America. They are also grown in the areas surrounding the Indian Ocean (including the Île Bourbon which is how they got their name).
  • Mexican: Think Madagascar but with a spicy kick. This is a perfect choice to accompany cinnamon and spicy chilies.
  • Indonesian: Woody, smoky, and very aromatic.
  • Tahitian: Fruity, floral notes. Some people compare it to cherry or licorice. Use this vanilla in a recipe that relies heavily on a bold vanilla flavor. They are also very aromatic and so are commonly used in commercial fragrance products.

Leading Producers of Vanilla Beans in the World


RankCountryTons of Vanilla Produced














Papua New Guinea












French Polynesia





















How Vanilla Is Made

I mentioned above that vanilla is costly because all of the work involved is done by hand. First, the blossoms are hand-pollinated and then hand-picked, but the "beans" at this stage neither smell or taste like vanilla. They have to be blanched to kill any lingering airborne yeast or fungus. This blanching can be done in the sun, in an oven, or even in a freezer.

The beans are then wrapped in cloth and placed in covered boxes where they are allowed to dry and mature. Pure vanilla extract is made from soaking the beans in a mixture of water and alcohol.

Did You Know?

  • The vanilla plant is an orchid.
  • Only 1 percent of the vanilla flavor in the world is real vanilla; the rest is synthetic, lab manufactured.
  • The price of real vanilla is skyrocketing. High demand, weather damage, and the fact that production is extremely labor-intensive are all driving up the cost.
  • During the blooming season, the flowers last only one day.
  • Because the flowers are so delicate, they can only be pollinated by a specific hummingbird species or a small bee; lacking that they must be pollinated by hand.
  • When fresh, vanilla beans have no taste or aroma.
Cranberry Vanilla Bean and Clove Glazed Turkey

Cranberry Vanilla Bean and Clove Glazed Turkey

Cranberry Vanilla Bean and Clove Glazed Turkey

Karlee shares that this recipe has been in her family for ages, and is a part of their annual Thanksgiving tradition. She explains:

"Won’t you pull up a chair at my family’s Thanksgiving with this recipe for Cranberry Vanilla Bean Clove Glazed Turkey? It’s surely one to remember. The warmest spices and the perfect tart-meets-sweet glaze that will relax as it’s consumed. We are certainly thankful for this glaze. Without it, you’ve got pretty basic turkey fixings. Some olive oil, liquid, sweet onion, sage, rosemary… you know… the stuff that should always come to the party. But, when the turkey is done with the baking and basting process, it’s hit a few times with a glaze that seems like it has every right to overthrow everything you thought you knew about this bird."

Vanilla Shrimp Crostini

Vanilla Shrimp Crostini

Vanilla Shrimp Crostini

Tired of the same old shrimp cocktail appetizer? This shrimp crostini from the kitchen of McCormick Spice Company is a delightful mix of tastes and textures and a definite change of pace. Crisp french bread slices are a contrast to the creamy Gruyere cheese. Instead of cocktail sauce, the shrimp are bathed in a butter wine sauce flavored with vanilla and a kick of cayenne pepper.

Vanilla Sweet Potato and Kale Curry

Vanilla Sweet Potato and Kale Curry

Vanilla Sweet Potato and Kale Curry

"Too thick to be a soup and too saucy to be a stew." This is how Janet describes this curry bowl she created when kale was abundant, curry powder was missing from her pantry, and sweet potatoes were begging to be cooked. It's a bowl of comfort with creamy, crunchy and just a bit of sweet heat. If you think that you don't like curry, this one might change your mind.

Mahi Mahi With Mango Vanilla Sauce

Mahi Mahi With Mango Vanilla Sauce

Mahi Mahi With Mango Vanilla Sauce

This recipe for mahi mahi with mango vanilla sauce by Delaware Online (part of the USA Today Network) is an adaptation of a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis. Mahi-mahi is a firm-fleshed fish with a mild flavor (halibut is a good substitute). The mango sauce isn't too sweet and ginger provides an earthy spicy note.

Vanilla Rosemary Carrots

Vanilla Rosemary Carrots

Vanilla Rosemary Carrots

In recent years the flavor combination of sweet/salty has become quite popular (salted caramel is everywhere). Maybe that's why Evan (the Wannabe Chef) created this vanilla rosemary carrots side dish. Carrots are naturally sweet; roasting enhances that flavor and the addition of vanilla makes the sweet taste really pop! Then rosemary and salt are added. I'll bet even the pickiest veggie hater would love these.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

As I write this article, the days are warm and summer is approaching. When the thermometer climbs most of us change from heavy soups and stews to lighter fare. This strawberry spinach salad would be wonderful for lunch or add some diced rotisserie chicken or cooked shrimp meat to make it a dinner-worthy meal.

What makes this salad special is the dressing—a sweet-sour vinaigrette of balsamic, honey, salt and pepper, and a vanilla bean.


© 2020 Linda Lum

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