VANILLA by Patricia Rain

VANILLA

The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor & Fragrance
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A keen encyclopedia of the aromatic plant’s many aspects and applications, from vanilla broker, consultant, and all-around expert Rain.

Yes, she’s something of a nut on the subject, but a charming and erudite one—and vanilla is its own best advertisement, as she will readily admit. Its history, ably recounted here, is long and romantic, the seductive aroma of its flowers and bean the stuff of myth and legend, recounted in numerous sidebars to the main story of the plant’s impact on civilization. Somehow, it’s not surprising that the vanilla plant is an orchid, in fact the only edible one. It grew originally in the Americas, from Mexico to northern Nicaragua, though these days many of the choice beans come from Madagascar or Tahiti. It was an object of great veneration during the 16th-century days of spice-trade excitement, with the French leading the way by using it to flavor ice cream and sorbets, as well as perfumes. Later, it was used to skirt Prohibition, as its extract had a nice, high alcoholic content. Rain’s approach is all business, though her subject softens all the edges with its erotic presence as she takes readers through the plant’s sacramental history, its peregrinations as a colonial novelty, its presumed medicinal value (an alleged cure for everything from coughs to the plague), and the qualities of its terroir (like wine, vanilla differs depending on where it is grown). The author presents interesting medical findings: a simple whiff of vanilla is “very effective in increasing penile blood flow” in mature men, yet it also has a notable ability to calm. But vanilla is also a bother. It requires intensive labor, the places in which it thrives are often politically volatile (Indonesia, the South Pacific islands, Réunion, Madagascar, India, Uganda), and skyrocketing prices have made it the frequent target of thieves.

Likely to remain the book on the topic for a long time.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 1-58542-363-7
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Tarcher/Penguin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2004