A Vanilla Read - "Vanilla: The Cultural History..." by Patricia Rain

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Vanilla is the only member of the orchid family, a family consisting of 90,000+ types, that has any edible properties. Vanilla is also used as an aphrodisiac to entice the opposite sex in the modern world, the same way it was back in the Aztec world. Of course it was also used to entice the Gods before a human sacrifice. Vanilla is also the cause for an unknown number of murders throughout history, flavoring your favorite foods, and is one of the most chemically complex compounds known to man! Vanilla, truly, is anything but vanilla.

Given, my book club was hesitant to read Patricia Rain, the Vanilla Queen's, newest book Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. Food histories are rarely on the top of anyone's "Must Read" list, and why would it be when The Secret Life of... can condense it so much easier in a simple half hour serving? But I was able to convince them otherwise, and they for the most part, enjoyed it.

Patricia Rain is by no means a truly professional writer (pot calling the kettle black), as the book is laid out much like a college thesis - chronologically, and by subject.Luckily it doesn't read like one; most of the time that is. While some historical backgrounds of the sweet bean may drag a bit, the favorite flavors' fascinating and intriguing story always pulls you in and Rain's writing always catches you time and again.

Rain begins the book with a short rundown of how and where vanilla grows and subsequently the how and where vanilla is cured and processed. She then proceeds to take us through it use and history in Aztec culture such as the above mentioned people slaughters and seductions. The tale then weaves through it's migration to Europe where it is subsequently forgotten except as a component of hot chocolate. An interesting story here is one of a pastor baning the high society parishioners from having their servants bring them their hot cocoa and vanilla to church, consistently interrupting his services. He is soon dispatched of via poison. Fun, fun. It goes without saying that the next pastor is more than happy to allow steamy sweet drinks.

The book soon goes into vanilla's sudden boom in France and Spain. We also delve into it's explosion into America thanks to prohibition, because bathtub vodka's flavor just demands to be covered up. Vanilla candy and vanilla flavor was a popular choice much like orange juice (the birth of the Screwdriver) to create tasty boozy drinks, bringing on the phrase, "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker."

Luckily she not only covers the social context and history of vanilla, but also it's significant standing in botany, religion, mythology, agriculture, and economics so the book in itself is quite complete. The pictures and "side bar factoids" are always welcome and help break up the sometimes monotonous vanilla musings.

Of course the book does have pitfalls. As I have mentioned before, the book does sometimes get itself in a rut. I think some of the European history chapters I just ended up skipping all together as it reminded me of dry cultural geography classes back in high school. The history section is also so long that I just started to randomly read the chapters in an order based on what sounded fascinating at the time. I think it just reads better that way, allowing you to dote on the topics that intrigue you and disregard the ones that don't.

The contemporary history is by far the most intriguing section where we see why Vanilla beans are so expensive; with difficulty in cultivating them in addition to constant theft and murder over them being the main reasons (although the World Market has Tahitian beans for 2 bucks! I assume they somehow bypass the murder somehow...). Plus, it goes through the scientific experimentation as it is utilized as a perfume, aphrodisiac, and drug, each with quixotic, though not surprising, results.

Ms. Rain appropriately sprinkles in some vanilla recipes throughout the book, creating a mouthwatering read to say the least. I tested out a few of them and let me say they truly rock my socks. The Vanilla and Coconut Milk with Shrimp recipe is heavenly, though I suggest you add a bit of cayenne to give it some kick. Plus the Chipotle-Vanilla Salsa and BBQ Sauce is a mind altering experience. It's really like nothing you have ever tried before! I love me some vanilla and garlic, and this married the two together into a perfect spicy sweet union! The taste of this and all her recipes is a mix of ephemeral and exotic.

People who like food literature and academic histories like this will adore Rain's vanilloquy. The everyday reader... not so much. It is however a book that you can easily pick up at anytime and will make a gorgeous addition to your book or cookbook shelf!


  1. garrett,

    you really have made me want to read this book. in fact, i've even made a link to it on my blog's sidebar in case anyone else is curious. (it is in my price range if i buy it used--a mere $2.25 + shipping!)

    ironically, i once had an ex- for whom i wore the vanilla-based fragrance from the 1920's, Shalimar (i believe it was the first to have a dominant vanilla topnote). alas, when i found out he liked it because it reminded him of a former girlfriend, i stopped wearing it!!

  2. Very awesome! I think you will like it! My book club had mixed results. They all enjoyed aspects and parts of it, and they all plan to keep it since it's so purty. Only the other foodie really loved the book.


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