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Definition: vanilla from Philip's Encyclopedia

Climbing orchid native to Mexico. The vines bear greenish-yellow flowers that produce seed-pods 20cm (8in) long, which are the source of the flavouring vanilla. Family Orchidaceae; species Vanilla planifolia.

Summary Article: VANILLA
from Food and Drink in American History: A "Full Course" Encyclopedia

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) is a common flavoring used in many foods, particularly desserts and sauces. The vanilla plant, a member of the orchid family, is native to southern Mexico and Central America. The distinctive flavor of the vanilla plant derives from the bean, a long, flat, slender seed pod that is odorless when picked. The aroma only develops when the pod is cured. In pre-Columbian times, indigenous peoples in Central America found that beans left in the sun became fragrant. Vanilla became popular particularly with the Aztecs, who used the beans as a medium of exchange. They also added ground beans to ground cocoa and made a frothy and fragrant though bitter chocolate and vanilla beverage that was enjoyed by the Aztec nobility.

The first Europeans to discover vanilla were soldiers in Hernan Cortéz's army who conquered Mexico in the early 16th century. Cortéz sent vanilla beans to Spain, where they were readily consumed. Vanilla was in such demand that Europeans tried to grow the plant in greenhouses but failed. The reason for this was that Melipona bees and other insects native to Mexico are vanilla's natural pollinators, and there were none in Europe. Europeans tried to artificially fertilize the beans and succeeded in 1836. The French began to grow vanilla plants on their Indian Ocean islands. A former slave on one of these islands—Réunion—uncovered a better way of pollinating the flowers, which greatly increased productivity. Vanilla growing expanded to other tropical French islands, including Madagascar and Tahiti.

Chemists found a way to make extract from vanilla beans, and the bottling of vanilla extract began in 1847. The extract was easier to ship and store than the whole vanilla beans. Since vanilla beans were grown only in a few places, they were expensive. In 1874 German chemists synthesized vanillin, the dominant flavor component of vanilla beans. While synthetic vanillin does not have the full flavor of natural vanilla, its production did greatly lower the cost of vanilla-like flavoring for home and commercial use. By the late 19th century, recipes with vanilla appeared in many American cookbooks. These included sauces, ice cream, baked goods, and beverages.

Vanilla pods. (Stephan Zabel/

As the price of vanilla and vanillin declined, the flavoring was used in a much wider range of foods and dishes, including custards, puddings, cakes, candies, cookies, meringues, macaroons, pies, and soft drinks. In the 1870s, soda fountain proprietors began using vanilla as a flavoring.

The first noncommercial vanilla cookbook was published in 1986 by Patricia Rain. She has subsequently promoted vanilla cookery throughout the United States and is referred to as the Vanilla Queen. Today, the largest culinary use of the extract is in the making of vanilla ice cream, which was America's favorite ice cream flavor until the mid-20th century, when it was replaced by chocolate. The largest American manufacturer of vanilla extract and vanillin is McCormick & Company of Baltimore.

See also Cakes; Cookbooklets; Ices and Ice Cream; Pies and Tarts; Soft Drinks

  • Coe, Sophie D. America's First Cuisines. University of Texas Press Austin, 1994.
  • Rain, Patricia. Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. Penguin New York, 2004.
  • Copyright 2013 by Andrew F. Smith

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