Flavor Of The Year
By Catherine Coburn
Thursday, July 8, 1999
OK, all you righteous culinarian wanna-be''s: What do your Goodyear radials and the cultural revolution that overthrew the Coca-Cola Company have in common? Give up? Let''s go double jeopardy: What did New Product News tout as 1999''s flavor and fragrance of the year?
Here''s a hint: It''s the same essence that Ellie May Clampett used to dab behind her ears to woo a feller with. Vanilla. And if you haven''t previously considered vanilla as one of the hottest, most happening cocktail party ice-breakers, you are woefully under-informed.
So was I, until speaking with Patricia Rain, aka "The Vanilla Queen," aka social anthropologist and author of The Vanilla Cookbook. (As well as The Artichoke Book, but artichokes are another story.) Add to this list her role as the Salinas College of Food''s marketing and communications director. Rain has multiple pursuits, many of which orbit around vanilla--a more interesting topic than I had ever before realized.
Remember the outrage bordering on anarchy when the new Coke came on the market, causing the Coca-Cola Company to scramble to put Coke Classic back on the shelves? "They had taken the vanilla out of the formula," Rain explains. "Vanilla is also used in the production of tires and paint, because it improves the smell. It not only has a delightful scent, but used the right way, it''s a perfect carrier and enhancer of other flavors."
After reading an article in the Wall Street Journal a number of years ago and learning that the King of Tonga had passed a royal decree regulating the harvest of vanilla beans, Rain developed an abiding appreciation for the product and an increasing infatuation with its rich cultural lore. That, and the fact that no one had gotten involved enough with the story to research and write about it. Later, when she spoke on the subject at an international conference in Mexico, she realized that the growers in the central Veracruz region all possessed a copy of her book. Even the ones that couldn''t read English.
"I was down there speaking on the 500 years of this old and new cuisine," Rain recalls, "and I got adopted by these people to help re-establish the Mexican vanilla industry." It was the original inhabitants of this Gold Coast region of Mexico, the Totonacs, who are credited with being the first growers. For a number of reasons, over the course of history, the industry flailed. Ultimately, production of vanilla was taken over in other parts of the world--like Madagascar and Indonesia--and there was a rise in the use of vanillin, a synthetic product.
Vanillin that is produced in the U.S. is safe to use, and a lot cheaper than the genuine article, but it also--like anything made from paper pulp or coal tar--isn''t going to have the true flavor. And synthetics made in poorer countries that don''t enforce labeling laws may not be so safe.
Along with working with the Mexican growing industry to establish labeling laws, Rain endeavors to raise the awareness of this ethereal gift of the orchid family, the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world. And she''s lobbying to convince a group of investors to support this rainforest-friendly, agriculturally sustainable industry.
She''ll also tell you if you haven''t tried sauting your shrimp in a mild olive oil perfumed with a drop of real vanilla, you''re missing out on the flavor of the year.