Virginia Tech Digital Library and Archives

Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 8 Spring 2005

Vanilla: the Cultural History of the World's Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance

by Patricia Rain
Published by J.P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2004.

This is a beautiful book and one that you will enjoy reading in your garden or in front of a cozy fire. The book reads like a good novel. Patricia Rain writes about the diverse impact of vanilla on food, medicine, and politics. She also includes wonderful recipes.

The cover introduction it states that "the Spanish considered vanilla the ultimate aphrodisiac, the Totanac Indians called it the fruit of the gods, and the Aztecs taxed the Totonacs in vanilla beans and used the beans as currency. Today, vanilla is in our coffee, tea, perfumes, lotions, medicines, and more."

The tribes in central Mexico to Costa Rica were the first ones to incorporate vanilla into their lives. Possibly around 2,000 to 2,500 years before the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1520.

Vanilla had sacred and religious connotations (a gift from the gods) and it was treated with reverence and considered a sacramental herb. During the late 1500's its name was changed from tlilxochitl (name in the Nahuatl language) to vanilla which meant "little scabbard". The name describes its appearance which is similar to the covering for swords.

"Until the beginning of the seventeenth Century, vanilla in Europe was considered a flavoring for chocolate.

Some recipes included in the book are:
Old-fashioned French Vanilla ice cream; Vanilla Wafers; Chipotle-Vanilla Salsa and BBQ Sauce; Moroccan Orange salad; Rice Cream; and the Perfect Vanilla Cream Soda

Vanilla: the Cultural History of the World's Most Popular Flavor and Fragrance is available in Special Collections (SB 307 V2 R25 2004) and is part of the Culinary Collection.

Send questions or comments to:
DLA, University Libraries
Virginia Tech, P.O. Box 90001,
Blacksburg, VA 24062-9001

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Last modified on: 06/13/06 11:41:36 Kimberli D. Weeks