Vanilla is NOT “Vanilla”

Negligence and duty of care are not matters that should concern the average reader of a food blog. After all, we’re here to talk about food right? At least we pretend to. Although, I’ll concede, bunny sock puppets making cupcakes adds little to the discourse.

But I digress.

Today, during our BarBri Torts lecture, the professor—a very funny guy who everyone loved—used a phrase to describe the average duty of care owed to the average person. He said (and I quote) (hence the quotation marks): “He is owed the plain old vanilla prudent person standard of care.”

The law itself does not concern us: please drop your textbooks. What does concern us, though, is this hateful use of the word “vanilla.” When did vanilla become a pejorative? Or at least a minimizer? Why does “‘vanilla” automatically mean “plain”?

For anyone who has experienced the pleasure of a vanilla bean, you are well aware that vanilla is anything but plain. Its flavor is intense and comforting and yet broader, too; timeless—to quote the Bangles, an “eternal flame.”

This picture may not seem like much…

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…but to me it represents one of the greatest smells that’s ever perfumed my kitchen. It comes from my homemade vanilla bean ice cream, so much more delicious than the chocolate gunk I made to appease Lauren’s sophomoric tastes:

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Oh you chocolate people are probably scratching your screens right now hoping for a whiff. How pathetic you are!

Vanilla people are a closeted bunch, ashamed of their apparently “conventional” “plain” and “ordinary” tastes. I contend that vanilla people are nothing near ordinary. We are a select breed, more finely attuned to the subleties in life. We spot ALL the differences in the back of Highlights magazine. We’re that sharp.

But there’s no need for binaries when it comes to chocolate and vanilla. They both have their merits. Chocolate is good to lure children into your oven and to hide razors in at Halloween. Vanilla can accomplish that too, but vanilla is sexier, vanilla is sultrier, vanilla is Laura Linney and chocolate is Catherine Zeta Jones. Sure, CZJ was in “Chicago” but at least Laura Linney doesn’t do cell phone commercials. [Although Laura Linney DID do “The Mothman Prophecies.”]

Vanilla is always a pleasant surprise, even in savory dishes. I’ll never forget the vanilla that accompanied the crab cake I stole from my mom at Bacchanalia. Or check out this line from Frank Bruni’s Bouley review: “I had black sea bass that had been slow-roasted to moist perfection and served in a bouillabaisse that was seasoned, surprisingly and deliciously, with vanilla.” See that? Vanilla can be surprising and delicious. Suck on that, chocolate.

In conclusion, recall the tag-line of the 199? Oscar-winning-scared-my-grandparents-movie, “American Beauty”: “Look closer.”

Sure, from a distance vanilla seems plain Jane, but up close it has more pizazz than Esther on a party night. To think otherwise is foodie negligence.

12 comments

  1. You are so bloody right! I just love vanilla. Chocolate is OK (black chocolate, that is, the milky stuff just sticks to your teeth and leaves a nasty aftertaste), but vanilla is so much nicer.

  2. I don’t really wish to take sides in the chocolate vs vanilla debate, I’m more a two-scoops kind of person.

    Anyway, if you love vanilla, you should try this recipe, it’s gorgeous, takes 2 seconds to make and shows how well vanilla can work with savoury stuff too: that’s the Vanilla Monkfish.

    You need (for 2 persons)

    – 1 monkfish tail (you can do it with filets of any plain cheaper fish too, but monkfish is much better, and if you can afford vanilla, you might as well go for the expensive fish too)

    – 1 lime (clean it well to rub all the chemicals away as we want to use the zest)

    – creme fraiche

    – aluminium foil

    – and… i was going to forget the most important: half a vanilla bean!!!

    (You might want some white rice too to serve with the fish)

    Heat your oven to about 180C.

    Cut the aluminium foil into 2 big squares. Cut the monkfish into 2 pieces and put one on each sheet. Open the half vanilla bean and scrape the seeds onto the fish. Then grate the zest of the lime onto the fish (doesn’t it smell nice?). Sprinkle with a bit of salt. Then pour a big spoon of cream on each portion of fish.

    Fold the aluminium around the fish until you get 2 airtight bundles (what’s the Engligh for Papillotte?). Put them into the oven and bake for probably about 10 minutes (I’m being totally random there, but it should be all right). Serve with white rice, and maybe a couple of slices of mango.

    Hope you like it…

  3. I put vanilla sticks in my sugar canister. Vanilla sucre becomes a kitchen highlight as friends realize just how intense and luxurious the smell and taste are.

    nh

  4. Valentine’s recipe above sounds yummy!

    But take note, all my fellow mathematically-challenged, Fahrenheit-loving Americans out there — Valentine’s oven temperature (180) is degrees centigrade, so you’ll be wanting to set your oven dial to about 350-360 degrees.

  5. Yes, yes and YES!

    Don’t forget that Vanilla’s also fabulous as a fragrance. Generations ago women would dab a few drops of vanilla extract behind each ear as a fragrance (they say it’s an aphrodisiac, too…but maybe that’s after a few sips of the vanilla extract). Vanilla notes are found in a ton of perfumes. Maybe if it were marketed as exotic and upscale (it’s the fruit of the orchid, you know), the snobby chocolate people would shut up already.

  6. Vanilla is fabulous..now let me get down to business. I didn’t know where to post this or what catagory it falls under…but I’m going to go ahead and say its an issue that needs to be addressed. Now, I may be wrong, but I think that, besides something briefly about bran buds in cooking light with pancetta, the Amateur Gourmet has never discussed cereal. Cereal is a very important part of the diet, and as a food guru I think that senor Adam should give us the low down on what his favorite cereal is, and how he feels about the food itself. Anyways, I thought nothing could be better than frosted flakes or raisin bran crunch, then I had apple cinnaman cherios and now I’m officially a cherioish…thats right like jewish but take of the jew and add cherio. I’m desperate to hear what you say.

  7. “Ah, you flavour everything; you are the vanilla of society.”

    –Sydney Smith to Lady Holland, during vanilla’s 19th-c. vogue; proving that “vanilla” was not always a disparaging descriptor

  8. I love the recipe!!

    To answer your question, 1 vanilla bean is roughly equal to 1 tsp extract!

    However you will find that using whole beans is a lot more fun! http://www.beanilla.com has a bunch of different varieties of beans really cheap!

    enjoy!

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