Of all the great debates—Coke versus Pepsi, boxers versus briefs, shaken versus stirred—few have been more polarizing than chocolate versus vanilla.
Those of us aligned with chocolate—the product of ground, roasted cacao beans—find it warm, comforting, ambrosial, and generally dismiss all things unchocolate as “vanilla,” meaning bland and boring. Those who prefer vanilla, a climbing orchid that bears long podlike fruit, praise its aromatic sweetness and note that it enhances the flavor of chocolate, which unembellished would be dull and kind of flat—in short, vanilla.
The one aspect of the chocolate-and-vanilla divide that has seldom been disputed is the question of provenance. But over the last year two new studies have radically rejiggered the origin stories of both. On the chocolate front, the earliest chemical evidence of cacao use has been pushed about 1,400 years further into the past and about 2,000 miles south. For vanilla’s part, researchers now believe that the beans were not only used by humans more than two millennia earlier than previously thought, but an entire ocean away.
These findings are just a couple of the latest examples of how archaeologists, geneticists and cultural anthropologists are rewriting history through the study of food.
The earliest use of vanilla has long been attributed to the Totonac community in what is now the Mexican state of Veracruz. They gathered the fragrant seedpods from orchids that grew wild in the forests. Much later, they domesticated the vines, which can take up to five years to mature. Each flower must be pollinated the one day that it blooms or else the stem bears no fruit. In
Mexico, Vanilla planifolia co-evolved with its pollinator, the melipona bee.
According to Totonac legend, the humble beginnings of the vanilla industry can be traced to 13th-century Papantla, known as “the city that perfumed the world.” “The native peoples were very knowledgeable about the medicinal use of herbs and may well have ground the vanilla bean for lung and stomach disorders as well as used the liquid from green beans as a poultice for drawing out insect venom and infections from wounds,” Patricia Rain explains in Vanilla, her cultural history of the spice.
The Aztecs, who subjugated the Totonacs in 1480, knew the plant as tlilxochitl, or “black pod” (a name which would be translated erroneously as “black flower,” leading to centuries of confusion over the primrose yellow petals). Tribute was exacted in the form of cured beans, an indispensable ingredient in the savory chocolate drink cacahuatl—also enlivened with chilies—which became the beverage of choice of Aztec nobility. In 1519, Montezuma II and the Spanish invader Hernán Cortés famously quaffed the cold, frothy brew at a feast in the capital Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City).