vanilla (precontact) Mesoamerican cultures

Vanilla is a flavoring extract made from the bean of one of two species of orchid plants, also called vanilla, that are indigenous to Mesoamerica. The first variety (Vanilla planifolia or V. fragransV. pompana Schiede) is cultivated less often because the flavor that its beans produce is not as well liked today. Vanilla vines, which thrive in a hot, moist climate climb to a height of several feet, using trees as supports. The plants flower once a year. The seedpods that are produced when the flower dies form the basis of vanilla. Looking somewhat like a string bean, they contain millions of seeds. American Indians were the first to discover the flavorful properties of these two varieties out of over 90 varieties of orchids and to domesticate them. They cultivated vanilla and pollinated the flowers by hand. Today vanilla is primarily used as a flavoring for desserts.

aicttwcovJust as cacao must be processed before it becomes CHOCOLATE, vanilla beans must be cured to bring out their vanillin, the essential oil that produces the flavor. The indigenous people of Mesoamerica discovered this four-step process. First they wilted the beans to begin the enzyme-producing reactions that provide the flavor. Next they heated the beans to speed the flavor production and to prevent them from fermenting or rotting. This also turned the pods their characteristic dark brown color. Next they dried the pods at room temperature. Finally they conditioned them by putting them in closed BOXES for about three months.

The Aztec, whose empire was established in what is now Mexico in about A.D. 1100, called ground vanilla beans tlilxochitl which means, black pods. They used vanilla to flavor chocolatl, a drink made from the roasted and ground seeds of the CACAO tree. Vanilla beans were so valued that they were one of the ways in which common people paid tribute to the Aztec emperors. (See also TAX SYSTEMS.)

he first Spaniards to write about Mesoamerica, including Bernal Diaz and Bernardino de Sahagun, described vanilla. The latter, a Fransciscan friar wrote in 1529 that in addition to being used to flavor chocolate drinks, the flavoring was sold in the market places. Although the Spaniards imported vanilla beans to Europe, where they were used to flavor chocolate, which the Spaniards also borrowed from the Aztec, vanilla-processing factories were not established in Europe until the late 1700s. Before this time Europeans did not understand the steps required to make the pods and seeds taste and smell like vanilla. The curing process was kept secret by the indigenous people of what by then had become Veracruz, Mexico.

Europeans used vanilla for medicinal purposes, valuing it as a nerve stimulant. They also believed it was an aphrodisiac, perhaps because of the name the Spaniards had given the plant, vaina, and which meant “pod” and also “vagina.” Europeans used vanilla to flavor TOBACCO, another plant they adopted from American Indians, and as a flavoring for food. Vanilla extract, an alcohol-based flavoring, was not invented until 1847. The flavor became such an integral part of European cooking that in 1921 the Academy of Sciences and Gastronomic Arts in Paris honored the ancient American Indians who had discovered the orchids from which vanilla favoring comes and the process for making it.

By the mid-1800s vanilla was introduced to Indonesia. Today it is grown in tropical countries throughout the world. Madagascar produces large amounts of vanilla, but the largest crop of vanilla comes from the state of Veracruz in Mexico where the plants continue to be grown by the Totonac Indian people.

Sources/Further Reading

Coe, Sophie. America’s First Cuisines. Austin, Tex.: University. of Texas Press, 1994. King, Steven R. Ph.D. Foods That Changed the World. Ethnobotany. URL: October 3, 1999.

Shanks Extracts – History of Vanilla. URL: vanilla/history.htm. Downloaded on October 3, 1999.

Weatherford, Jack. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.