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That is So Vanilla

Gary Almeter

Vanilla is used as a synonym for plain, rustic, unadorned, austere, and basic.  Vanilla, however, is by any measure more exotic than the exotic flavors with which it is compared, quite often with derision. The word vanilla is oft-used to label for ho-hum dull people, personalities, tastes, or habits — including sexual tastes —- that are square, plain, and boring. This is really unfortunate, and emblematic of how little we appreciate our unprecedented abundance of exotic things.


Vanilla refers to any member of a group of tropical climbing orchids and the flavoring agent extracted from their pods. Vanilla as a flavoring agent are the unripe fruits of plant species native to Mexico, Tahiti, Madagascar - it basically thrives only in tropical climates within 20 latitudinal degrees of the equator.  


It is the second most expensive spice because growing the vanilla seed pods is highly labor-intensive. It costs about as much as silver. It activates more tastebuds than flavors like chocolate and strawberry.  


Why is vanilla considered the default flavor of ice cream? It's a result of the discovery of vanillin. Vanillin is a phenolic aldehyde with a molecular formula of C8H8O3. It is the chemical used most frequently - exponentially more frequently than the vanilla bean because it is exponentially cheaper - in flavoring foods and aromatizing perfumes and aromatic oils.  It was invented in 1874 by German scientists named Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarman.  They founded a company which is now part of the flavoring conglomerate called Symrise.  It was cheap and complemented nearly everything so it became the default flavor for things like ice cream.


We have two options. Option 1: engage in a long-term, likely decades-long, public relations effort to alter the meaning of vanilla from ordinary and common to exotic, rarefied, and from now on, vanilla shall be synonymous with exotic, alluring, extraordinary; perhaps even a bit outlandish and maybe even on the cusp of avant garde. Surely there are those in the public relations field who would be adept at this. The annals of public relations are replete with stories of brand and product revitalization. It would presumably involve  a campaign with someone like Daniel Craig or Charlize Theron ordering and reveling in vanilla ice cream.  Like what E.T. did for Reese’s Pieces or Michelle Obama did for J. Crew.


Option 2 feels more immediate.  Option 2 is to circumvent the process and just change the name for things containing authentic vanilla to something more befitting. I propose recherché. “I’d like two scoops of recherché in a cone please.”  Recherché means rare, exotic, or obscure. 


On the other hand, there is something, akin to typewriters, thick-framed glasses, and Steve Jobs’s Levi’s and New Balances, exotic in reveling in its normalcy.


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*For each moot, we generate a cover image using  DALL·E, an AI art platform that generates images using natural language processing. This image on the right was generated using the title, 'That is So Vanilla' in the style of the Edward Hopper, the Gary's artist of choice.*

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DALL·E 2022-10-26 18.43.26 - painting of a cone of vanilla ice cream in the style of Edwar

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