“Being the vanguard of ice cream has vanquished its radical sensation.”

I have a favorite local pub that specializes in offering a wide variety of craft beers that rotate weekly – they have dozens of taps and whenever I go there’s always a couple beers on special I’ve never heard of.  Let’s just say, it’s not the kind of place you order a Budweiser.  But I was surprised when they stopped serving Guinness to focus their selection toward offering unique flavors from a variety of breweries.  As an American pub, Guinness still seems exotic enough to offer, right?

I didn’t want to order Guiness that night and I have never ordered it there before, in fact I barely noticed it was absent from the list. Yet I was still surprised and annoyed that they wouldn’t offer the “classic” or “go-to” stout. C’mon, it’s a classic.  So what if Guinness is the “vanilla” of the stout world?  Ben & Jerry’s has dozens of flavors and yet they always have vanilla.

Of course, I never order vanilla at ice cream shops either because who wants vanilla ice cream?

It’s just so common and plain.  Multitudes of things have vanilla varieties – yogurts, cookies, cereals, sodas, even alcohols.  Then there are the candles, lotions, air fresheners, and body washes.  If there are multiple flavors or scents available for a product, it is likely one of them is vanilla.

Vanilla has become synonymous with “plain” and in contexts other than just flavors.  A “vanilla” person has a conventional and unadventurous personality type.  A “vanilla” computer game is the original game with no expansions or extras.  It can be used to describe anything that is boring, modest, basic, or simple.

But vanilla hasn’t always had such a boring reputation.  It was once worshiped by the Aztecs as a sacred plant, and when Cortes brought it back to Europe in the 1520s it quickly became one of Spain’s hottest commodities.

Europe’s demands were mainly exported from Mexico because it was difficult to cultivate in non-native regions as it required pollination from a local bee species not found in Europe.  The exotic origin of the plant and the difficulty in its growth and acquisition made it all the more desirable and prestigious.

According to the Totonac, an early civilization that lived in Mexico, the vanilla plant sprung the blood of two beheaded lovers, an immortal princess and the mortal she was forbidden to marry.

In the mid 19th century, the invention of hand-pollination allowed the plant to be cultivated anywhere and global production began. But even with production possible in non-native regions, it was still a labor-intensive process: the flower will die within hours after blooming if not pollinated, the pods grow for 9+ months, and then curing processes take several more months.

Even after vanilla production increased, its price and demand, and therefore prestige, stayed high.

So what changed?  When did “vanilla” stop being a widely sought exotic spice and become the bland flavor we see it as today?

Vanilla first came to America when Thomas Jefferson brought it as an ice cream flavoring from France.  Though the flavor was exotic, it is possible it began to acquire it’s “plain” reputation here: Ice cream was commonly flavored with nuts and berries, so although the flavor was exotic, it’s white, plain, smooth texture must have seemed very plain in comparison.

A portion of Thomas Jefferson’s personal vanilla ice cream recipe.

However it is more likely that the high popularity of vanilla is what caused its slow progression towards anonymity and blandness. Vanilla was such a great spice that it was used for everything, but once it was available everywhere it ceased to be special.

Most things now aren’t even made with real vanilla anymore, but rather vanillin.  Vanillin is the main compound in natural vanilla, but while real vanilla extract also contains hundreds of other compounds, imitation vanilla is mainly all vanillin.

Production of vanillin, which started as a profitable use for certain by-products of the paper making industry, further led to widescale use of “vanilla” as a flavoring, where it eventually faded to a background or complimentary flavor.  Now it seems vanilla needs a special flavor partner to really grab one’s eye – Vanilla Java, Vanilla Caramel, Vanilla Toffee, Vanilla Rum, the list goes on.

But it still holds true that vanilla is the one flavor you can get anywhere, so why get it (insert name of the next bakery or ice cream shop you visit)?  Because really, who is famous for their vanilla ice cream? Or their pastries with vanilla frosting?

But who knows, maybe its absence from the food spotlight for a while will respark our love of vanilla. Maybe when chocolate goes out of style?

Although I doubt that’s ever happening.

“Without ice cream there would be darkness and chaos”

Even though its turning winter time in Michigan right now and I definitely saw snowflakes yesterday, I am still currently craving gelato – the extremely tasty Italian version of ice cream.

I used to work at a gelateria – a shop that sells gelato – and I got accustomed to constant access to free gelato.  It was the coolest job, at first: I worked with my three best friends serving (and sampling) gelato, espresso, and other delightful Italian baked goods.  Then we realized the bosses were greedy and stupid, I devolved into hiding sprinkles in inaccessible places throughout the shop, and we all quit at the beginning of the summer.  We’ve never looked back, except when we go back on someone’s birthday when there is free gelato to be acquired, and then we always end up missing the stupid place.  Lots of funny stories and awesome desserts were had.  But damnit, most of all, I miss eating gelato everyday.

Of course this American made gelato, though good, was no match for the real deal I had in Italy.  Authentic Italian gelato is unbeatable, I believe partly because the dessert is all Italian – gelato comes from the Latin word gelatus, meaning frozen, and some of the earliest frozen desserts were served in in the Roman empire.  Romans, and Egyptians, would often bring back ice and snow from mountains to make frozen treats for the wealthier citizens.  But the first official batch of “ice cream” isn’t thought to have originated until much later, in the 16th century.   Bernardo Buontalenti is credited with first making ice cream for the Medici Family in Florence, and obviously it has been a popular treat ever since.

A combination of Cocoa and Mint Chocolate Chip gelati, from the town of San Gemini, Italy.

When I worked at the gelateria, a lot of people – a lot – would always ask what made gelato different than regular, American ice cream.  So I consider myself to be a bit of a pro at the following explanation:

  1. Gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream: Ice cream is served cold enough to give one a severe case of “brain freeze”, something that gelato doesn’t do because it is warmer – this also means that gelato doesn’t freeze your taste buds like ice cream can do, meaning you actually get to taste more of the gelato flavor.
  2. Gelato is more dense than ice cream: Ice cream tends to be about 25-35% air as a result of the churning process, whereas gelato is only about 10%.  This is not necessarily a bad thing because I love fluffy ice cream, however more air does mean less flavor.
  3. Compared to ice cream, gelato is made with more sugar and less fat: This is great because not only is it a proven fact that sugar makes everything taste better, but fat actually makes you taste less of it.  Fat molecules can coat your taste-buds and dilute the gelato flavor, so less of it means you taste more of the gelato.  Plus, gelato being lower fat also means you don’t feel as bad about eating way more of it.

So, conclusion: gelato is a tasty tasty frozen treat that everyone should try, no matter the time of year.  My recommendation is nocciola or hazelnut, a classic Italian flavor that shouldn’t be missed!

What’s Coming Soon:

Just another typical archeology post … or is it?