I like reading about food almost as much as I like cooking food. Food micro-histories aren’t usually page turners, but I love the idea of someone learning everything there is to know about an ingredient or a cuisine –anything, really – and then sharing the information with me. That’s what happens when a micro-history is written well, anyway. And Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid is actually written well.
Ecott traces vanilla’s story from the jungles of the Yucatan to the tiny islands of Reunion and Tahiti –excellent work, if you can get it. Along the way, he focuses on many aspects of the plant’s development and usage, including social justice issues, economics and agriculture. The historiography is well done, shifting seamlessly from Mexico and Central America to England to Madagascar to the Marquesas. It’s clear that Ecott has done a great deal of legwork.
A particularly interesting part of the book revolves around Edmond, the slave who discovered the trick to fertilizing orchid plants with a trick known as le geste d’Edmond. Figuring out the trick was crucial, as the insects that naturally fertilize the vanilla orchids in Mexico and Central America are not found on the Indian Ocean islands from which today’s Bourbon vanilla is largely exported. Ecott uses this section of the book to explore the social history of the French colonial islands, and the lingering racism faced by the Afro-French to this day:
In Tahiti, another former French possession, I met a vanilla grower who laughed when I told him what I knew of the story of Edmond. “Rubbish!” he said with a scowl. “In fact, the boy was just a slave – and it is well known that he hated his owner. If he did fertilize the vanilla flower – it was an accident, not any kind of discovery!”
This despite the fact the slave’s owner documented the discovery at the time, and freely shared the information with other plantation owners. The social history of the islands, as well as the current social aspects of the farmer/curer/importer relationships, are what set this book apart from other micro-histories which shy away from the politics of their subject.
I find it particularly satisfying when a micro-history leaves me with information I would never have had or that I can use in my daily life. Here’s one (among many) to whip out at cocktail parties from Ecott: those little black grains in your “Vanilla Bean” ice cream have NO flavor. That’s right, NONE. According to Ecott, the flavor in your commercially made ice cream comes entirely from extracts, not the beans extracted from the pods as you would do in home ice cream making. What you think are beans are actually the flavorless “dust” left from the extraction process. So why include them? It’s a heuristic, indicating “home-made” and “flavorful,” since in the rest of our life that’s exactly what the pods signify.
I definitely recommend this book to foodies, micro-history lovers and travel readers. At the very least, it will provide some chit-chat at the next ice cream social!