Now that I am deep into this project, I am surprised at the amount of overlap between botany, human sexuality, and American history. The founding fathers had quite a hand in the importation and exportation of plants for reasons of “health.” The story of vanilla is no different. Of course, like most history involving the formation of America, the native peoples had been aware of and utilizing vanilla for hundreds of years before Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers showed up.
Vanilla (V. planifolia) is a species of orchid that is native to Mesoamerica. It rarely flowers, and when it does, pollination must occur within 12 hours of the flower opening to produce the coveted “bean” in which the vanillin compound is produced. In the wild, the Vanilla orchid has co-evolved with the Mexican Stingless Bee – the bee is the only known pollinator and resulted in Mexico being the only exporter of Vanilla until a process for hand pollination was discovered in 1841. Even now, there are only a few suitable climates for growing the orchid and planting to production can take upwards of 5 years, making vanilla second only to saffron in price of spices.
So how did vanilla get north of Mexico? Well, Thomas Jefferson was introduced to the flavor while serving as ambassador to France. When he returned to the United States in 1789 he quickly learned that no one knew about vanilla. He then wrote to his contacts in France and had pods sent back to the states where the flavor quickly caught on.
Of course, in Europe vanilla had long been used as a drink to restore male potency and vigor. Both Casanova and the infamous Marquis de Sade utilized vanilla to cause men and women alike to become
seized with a burning sensation of lustful ardour
In 1762 the German physician Bezaar Zimmermann described his study of “342 impotent men” who
by drinking vanilla decoctions, had changed into astonishing lovers of at least as many women
Instant Viagra! And probably better tasting although I have no data (anecdotal or otherwise) to back that claim up.
Vanilla went on to become one of the most common flavors in American cooking. Jefferson and Washington both kept stores of Vanilla ice cream in their estates and as of July 2013 vanilla is still the most popular ice cream flavor in the United States. One has to wonder if it isn’t because consumers are overtaken with lust after consuming it…