Vanilla Cake
Vanilla Bean Story: A Tribute To Totonacs' Marriage Of Vanilla

Vanilla cake is an elementary dessert, a fundamental in home baking. It is so plain and natural that little who thinks about how vanilla has actually arrived to his or her kitchen. Meanwhile vanilla bean has a history. It may be surprising to discover that if we want to find the beginnings of vanilla cultivation, will have to turn to American Indians, just like in case with chocolate history.

The vanilla orchid, Vanilla pinafolia, is a treasured vine, a native plant that originally grew wild in the Caribbean, Central American and Mexican rainforests. The vine would climb until it reached the top of the forest canopy, but as it grew taller it used more energy and produced fewer flowers.

The Totonac people, whose descendants still live on the east coast of Mexico, looped the vines so that they reached no higher than five feet, and the stalks responded by producing more blossoms for the hummingbirds, bees and ants to pollinate. The small greenish flowers bloom for just one day. The flowers not visited by pollinators wilt in the afternoon and drop to the ground by nightfall.

Pollinated blossoms produce pods similar to elongated string beans and they are known as vanilla beans. Neither the flower nor the pod has the distinctive vanilla scent. Only when the pods are fermented and cured do they release the taste and fragrance that we now recognize as the chemical compound vanillin. The Totonacs were determined to increase vanilla production and they learned how to remove the membrane that separates the male and female parts of the orchid. That membrane prevents self-pollination, and when their technique proved successful and produced more vanilla, the Totonacs said it was “the marriage of vanilla.”

Patricia Rain, anthropologist/writer and author of “The Vanilla Cookbook”, finds it “remarkable that ancient people discovered a method of cultivation very much like the one we use today.” 

For more than a thousand years the Totonacs revered the vanilla bean. They savored its flavor in their food and drink. They integrated vanilla into their myths, culture and religion. One of the myths imparts the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew.

Totonacs also found vanilla had medical properties and used it as an insect repellent and potent aphrodisiac.

Little wonder that the Totonacs never forgave the Aztecs, who invaded their land, subjugated the people and forced them to pay tribute with part of the annual vanilla harvest. They chafed under Aztec domination but could not free themselves.

In 1520 Hernan Cortez enlisted Totonac help in his campaign to oust the Aztecs from their land. The Totonacs thought they would escape their oppressors, but Cortez never rewarded their services. He treated them disdainfully and raised their taxes. His followers relished vanilla and probably brought it to Spain. Vanilla was eagerly accepted as an expensive perfume as well as a flavoring, but it was a luxury so rare that it was rationed to kings. The French were enamored of vanilla. To reduce its cost they arranged to have Mexican vanilla cuttings shipped to Madagascar, Reunion and other French colonies. By 1730 the cuttings were established on several islands, but the vines seldom flowered and few pollinators reached them. When that enterprise failed the Totonacs gained another grip on the world vanilla trade. For more than a century they shrewdly retained a monopoly, demanding high prices for their product, until finally their competitors learned the secret of “the marriage of vanilla”. The Totonac monopoly came to an end in 1841 on the island of Reunion when someone learned how to use a thin stylus to remove the membrane preventing self-pollination.

When was the first in the world vanilla cake baked? Most likely the recipe is as ancient as vanilla itself and it used to be a bit different from what we bake today: no baking soda, for example. Today with vanilla available easily in most of supermarkets you can create your own vanilla cake story in your kitchen!

Go to Vanilla Cake recipe.

Source: The Taste Makers: How New World Foods came to Old World Kitchens, 2003