I spent a lot of time living in Africa and Asia, as well as in the Middle East. In those days before the internet brought the world’s products to the door, my choices were constrained by availability. For most of that time we lived, in the parlance of the international community “on the economy.” This meant learning to adapt our desires to the local products we found in the markets and on the shelves of local stores. Forget brand names and forty different kinds of cereal. We were just glad that the Blue Nile grocery in Cairo delivered fresh aish to our apartment.
Today a visit to the local grocery or the Amazon marketplace reminds me of those take-what-you-can get days. Safeway’s cleaning products shelves are all but denuded every time I check. Amazon tells me that disinfecting wipes are not available, and a shipment of plastic gloves will arrive in October if I order in the next five minutes. Instacart wants to substitute copier paper for toilet paper. (I draw the line there.)
Truthfully, I’ve never really cared about having lots of choices. I’m a creature of habit and don’t love making decisions, so I eat the same cereal every morning, buy the generic, store-brand whatever whenever I can. And since childhood, I have always chosen vanilla when we went to 31 Flavors.
Little did I know that was the most exotic choice I could have made.
I recently learned that vanilla is an orchid! Having grown up in an environment where orchids were really big pink floppy things you wore on your wrist on prom night, I was introduced to the beauty and rarity of orchids by Belgian friends who collected them, and later learned to love them in Thailand, where they abounded but were no less rare and expensive for that. Associating those fragile blooms in any way with vanilla never occurred to me.
For me, vanilla came in little brown bottles at the grocery and was spooned into cake mixes where I also added an egg to make me feel like I was actually baking a cake. (Please no comments on my baking skills, or lack thereof. I already know.)
But of course, that was artificial vanilla. Now I know that vanilla is a precious, exotic and rare spice. The vine of the vanilla orchid was cultivated by the Aztecs. Until the mid- 19th century, Mexico remained the chief producer of vanilla, due to the difficulty of pollinating the flower. Each flower produces only one fruit pod, achieved through pollinating the blossom. It seems that the orchid is hermaphroditic, carrying both male and female organs, separated by a membrane. A certain kind of bee, living only in Mexico, is able to penetrate the membrane and pollinate the flower. The vines were transplanted to Europe and French overseas colonies, but without the bee, which did not thrive outside Mexico, the vines did not fruit. Enter a brilliant 12-year old boy named Edmond Albius, a slave on the French island of Réunion. He figured out how to hand-pollinate the orchid in 1841, using a simple method involving a beveled sliver of bamboo and his thumb. Unbelievably, this method is still used today. As the flower lasts just one day, imagine how labor intensive it is to pollinate and produce the pods containing the tiny black seeds that are real vanilla.
Ok, so my ongoing case of covid-curvature of the brain has brought us to this point. Our present lack of multiple choices offers us the opportunity to examine the choices we can make and appreciate them in new ways. Something gained from nothing is really something.
Amr Mounib gives us a flower. Not vanilla, but just as special. Art Heals.