Romancing the Bean

Illustration by Bill Garland

Who knew that mild vanilla had such a sexy history? Eleni Gage seeks out its origins south of the border.

Today, most people consider chocolate to be the world's most lust-inducing food. But historically, it has been vanilla that excited the libido. The beans were first harvested in what is now the state of Veracruz, Mexico, and when Aztecs conquered the indigenous Totonaca, they taxed them in precious vanilla. After the Spanish invaded, they imported vanilla to Europe, eventually using it as a treatment for impotence. More recently, in the late 1990s, the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago found that vanilla is one of the most arousing scents to mature men.

For such a flirty flavor, vanilla sure plays hard to get. It begins as an orchid, vanilla planifolia--in Mexico, it's called la flor recondita (the hidden flower) because it's so elusive. There's a month-long period in March and early April during which the orchid flowers, but usually only one bud on each stem blooms per day. To produce a bean, a blossom must be fertilized within four hours of flowering, so cultivators hand pollinate the orchids instead of relying on bees. Today, the vanilla orchid is cultivated predominantly in Africa, Asia, and the South Pacific. But I wanted to see the coy flower in its natural habitat, so I went on a culinary tour of Veracruz led by chef Susana Trilling.

The region is obsessed with vanilla, and on our journey through the area, so were we. In Tecolutla, we drank Xanath, a vanilla liqueur. In Papantla's town square, we bought souvenirs from artisans selling vanilla beans twisted into scorpions, roses, and even a crucified Jesus.

The high point in our vanilla pursuit took place in Gutiérrez Zamora, home to the Gaya Vai-Mex factory since 1873. A number of vanilla plantations offer tours by appointment, but Gaya Vai-Mex is the oldest and the only one run by a woman, a slim 30ish dynamo named Norma Gaya. She employs over 500 farmers--all men. "The first day, I had to drink a lot with the vanilla producers, so they would accept me," Norma said.

We toured the 173 acres of orange, cocuite, and pichoco trees that act as hosts for the orchid vines, following Antonio, the foreman, who cleared a path with a machete until he spotted an orchid. As we watched with hushed reverence, Antonio dipped a stick into the pollen at the stamen, then gently brought it up to the stigma. This was a whole new level of food porn--but it was beautiful. The flower would fall off by the next day, and in nine months a bean would be ready to harvest.

Back at the Gaya Vai-Mex factory, we saw acres of vanilla beans curing in the sunshine. Sorters separated the biggest pods to sell as beans, the medium-size ones for artisans to craft, and the smallest ones to make vanilla extract. On a wall, a mural showing a Totonaca princess alludes to vanilla's legendary origins. After Princess Morning Star was abducted by her admirer, Young Deer, they were caught and beheaded, and from earth soaked with their blood sprang the first vanilla orchid.

The next day, we attended the Cumbre Tajín, the spring equinox celebration held at the ruins of El Tajín, a complex of palaces, ball courts, and pyramids dedicated to the Totonaca gods of thunder. El Tajín was abandoned in the 12th century, but each March the ruins come to life for the festival with a series of sound and light shows. Outside the ruins, a vanilla queen, wearing a crown and necklace made of beans, circulated among visitors watching the voladores (flying dancers) perform an ancient Totonaca fertility ritual. One played a flute and danced atop a 75-foot-tall pole, while four others rappelled down it, spinning from ropes.

It's an occasion to celebrate traditional Totonaca culture, but the equinox is also an opportunity to make a fresh start. Visitors wear all white--the better to receive the sun's healing vibrations--and the ruins complex bustles with curanderos, or healers, offering guests a kind of spiritual spring cleaning.

On the morning of the equinox, I circled the ruins looking for the right curandero to cleanse me. Bypassing several old women beating their supplicants with herbs, I picked an old man in Totonaca garb--white bloomers and shirt, red kerchief, straw hat. He instructed me to spread out my arms to embrace the blessing, and seemed to skim my aura, moving his hands along my head and upper body without ever actually touching me. Finally, he raised his left hand in front of my forehead and his right toward the pyramid behind us. In a loud, deep voice, he intoned in Spanish, "Lord Tajín, give this woman a brilliant mind, like mine. Good health, like I enjoy. Multitudes of friends, like mine."

I stood quietly, receiving his blessing, although the truth is, I didn't want to be like him, but like the plant that had brought me there. As he chanted, I prayed to become as sought-after, as mysterious, as beloved as vanilla.

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