Vanilla gets a bad rap. One of the most complex spices, its delicate, sweet-yet-spicy flavor lends itself to woody, berry-like, floral, and rummy notes. Yet, calling something “vanilla” in 2020 is a pointed insult. Vanilla, as an ingredient, is luxurious, imported, and multi-layered in flavor — it makes almost everything better and yet the word has come to mean boring. You probably won’t be surprised to find that vanilla most likely has come to mean boring because of colonialism.
First, the history: Vanilla is actually as South American as chiles or chocolate. Native to Mexico, vanilla, as chocolate was, was originally cultivated by Indigneous peoples. Vanilla, as a plant, is extremely hard and fussy to grow, only flourishing in near-equator climates. In fact, it takes around three years for a vanilla orchid to start producing beans, and in order for that flower to produce a fruit, a bee or a hummingbird has to pollinate it first. Otherwise, it won’t even bother to sprout a bean. What a diva.
One of the earliest records of the word comes from The Indian Nectar, or a Discourse Concerning Chocolate, a 1662 text by English scholar Henry Stubbe that expounded on the health benefits of chocolate and vanilla based on how Spanish colonists encountered it. And that’s what native populations were using it for: medicine.
Mexico remained the main source of the world's vanilla until the 1840s, when Edmund Albius, a 12-year-old enslaved boy on the Reunion, a French colony, discovered that you could hand-pollinate the vanilla orchid. Remember his name — it’s as important as George Washington Carver's. His discovery allowed global cultivation to expand dramatically, making it more accessible and less expensive, and you know what that meant to colonizers? Money.
According to European history, Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez “discovered” the spice (which as you know in hindsight actually means took it back to his own country like white girls take beaded island braids back to the suburbs), and brought a large supply back with him to Spain, introducing it to his king. Its popularity grew and vanilla bean plantations quickly began to spread across Europe, into Africa and Asia, where they remain today.
“In the 1850s, the chemical vanillin was isolated from vanilla — it’s the main flavoring component,” says Sarah Wassberg Johnson, a food historian and blogger at The Food Historian. This is mostly because vanilla was prohibitively expensive for lower classes, and most people loved the flavor. “In the 1870s, chemists isolated vanillin from coniferin, which is derived from pine bark. Today, most vanilla flavoring is artificially created vanillin,” she says. I would just like to reiterate now that what you have in your cupboard next to the food coloring is due to a 12-year-old Black kid on an island in the 1800s who started it on its journey around the world.
The fact that vanilla’s long and storied past is not considered when talking about boring people and everyday sex (which, in itself is lovely, delicious, and complex) has roots in its evolution as a word as much as it does its evolution in our kitchens. “The history of the word vanilla, while it may be slang for ‘boring’ is anything but,” says John Kelly, the senior research editor of Dictionary.com, and etymology wunderkind. “The word vanilla brings together ancient Mesoamerica, ancient China, metaphors, the names of naughty body parts, gay bars, sex, chocolate, Thomas Jefferson, jazz, and lots of European colonialism.”
Vanilla might mean basic to some, but when you hear where the word comes from, you’ll know it’s as valuable and sought after as Cardi B’s latest hit — etymologically, it comes from the same place as vagina. “The English word vagina, referring to the female body part, comes from the Latin vagina, meaning ‘sheath’,” Kelly says, adding that the vanilla plant is an orchid and the word orchid comes from Greek for “testicles.” None of this is sounding boring to me at all, but just like the Macarena, raising the roof and the phrase “on fleek,” the public at large loves to take a popular and unique thing, run it into the ground, and then blame it for being everywhere.
“After chocolate and vanilla were taken to Europe, other cultures, notably the French, further developed them into their cuisine in the 1600s,” Kelly continues, noting that the French also added vanilla to ice cream. That cool confection is generally believed to have originated in China, and was brought to Europe by Marco Polo who probably said he “discovered” that too. That’s why we associate vanilla with French dessert cuisine so much so that the term “French vanilla” exists (even though it doesn’t grow in France). The term actually doesn’t refer to the spice, but the way that French people use an egg custard base to pair with vanilla to enhance both of the flavors.
Several crème brûlées and profiteroles later, by the late 1950s, we see plain vanilla as an informal way to describe something as “plain” or “basic”—having no embellishments; no bells and whistles. “This is in allusion to vanilla ice cream, taken as the most basic flavor,” Kelly says.
“Basically, [this is why] ‘vanilla’ has come to be known as the basic, unmarked flavor,” says Eve Sweetser, a linguistics professor at University of California, Berkeley, informing me that historically most flavorings in desserts (like ice cream), also contain vanilla as an ingredient, although nowadays using pure vanilla is less ubiquitous because of cost.
That’s why when you get real vanilla ice cream at the store (with its signature brown specks), it’s more expensive. “Thus, it's the bland flavor without any strong or salient flavoring. Because of this, it's also the one you assume nobody will object to — little kids who might not eat kiwi sorbet will eat vanilla ice cream,” she says.
Then by the 1970s, the slang use of vanilla is used in reference to “conventional” sexual activity by my people: the gays. Vanilla, in this context, refers to non-sadomasochistic sexual practices, and actually is still used in that way on Grindr and elsewhere on the pipes and tubes of the gay hookup internet. Bruce Roberts’s 1972 The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon — the gay slang dictionary you didn’t know existed but should definitely buy — includes two entries for "vanilla." One of them describes the term as “a gay bar that is not sadomasochistic” and the other definition refers to a “rigid, conforming, goody-goody” person.
“Vanilla, as Roberts’s second sense already anticipates, generalizes as slang for boring or safe," Kelly says, adding that in the '80s, it was used in this way within the computer science world to describe uninteresting' computer programs.
Vanilla has also long had a racial dimension in slang, he tells me. By at least the 1940s, vanilla was used in Black slang for a white person, “especially a white woman, perhaps not unlike Beyoncé’s ‘Becky with the good hair,’” he adds, making me wish he was my English professor in college.
It’s hard to say exactly how vanilla made the jump from gay slang to everyday, every sexual orientation's use, but as I said earlier, like Kylie Jenner and cornrows or straight people and the word “yass,” you can imagine how the word's usage spread before the Internet provided concrete and eternally digitized proof. It's conjecture of course, but by 1972, even Samantha on Bewitched had a gay friend, so it’s not hard to imagine less witchy friendships between gays and straights fueling the spread.
Vanilla is beyond fascinating as a subject, as a word and as a flavor, and sometimes a bowl of vanilla ice cream on a hot day is all you need to be happy. Vanilla is, to be sure, anything but boring. It’s one of the most complex things the entire world enjoys.