In Search of Vanilla


My arrival in London with a variety of baggage, not only clothes, personal belongings, and a laptop to help me through the six weeks of the UK Fulbright with the Eccles Centre, but also expectations about what I will discover at the Archives. My research focuses on the relationship between races and foods. I am particularly interested in one of the most notable cases of vanilla and chocolate. I was aware from my previous research that the two substances have a long history of pairing (chocolate and vanilla “go together”) yet they also have culinary and semantic opposites (a contrast between both white and black; one can’t replace each other). A different interpretation of the semantic contrast between these two substances is that they are metaphors for race. For instance an article from 1974 from the Jet magazine discusses the way that the entertainer Connie Stevens “began her act with two Black dancers and two white dancers by saying that she has two daughters at home–‘one Chocolate and one Vanilla.'”

I was aware from prior studies that the connection of dark color, negative qualities like sinfulness and blackness racialized in the 17th century. However, the evidence was not so clear about vanilla’s association with color white, purity a taste that was bland and whiteness of the racial race. I figured that I had not been looking at the appropriate places. The British Library’s vast collection of rare chronicles, cookbooks, medical and culinary manuscripts would fill in gaps regarding how and when vanilla acquired its fame. I was thinking that vanilla would be present, maybe a little everywhere, but I missed it due to focussed on chocolate. My time in the archives as well as in British supermarkets and restaurants revealed how incorrect I had been! I realize that I was influenced by an American prejudice about vanilla. My American belief is it is that vanilla has become the most popular flavor for just about everything and I believed that the use of vanilla originated in British cooking and medical practices. A thorough study of research into British Library holdings showed this to be false. It was not until the 19th century that the vanilla, like Mrs. Beeton claimed, vanilla was “in daily use for ices, chocolates, and flavouring confectionary generally.”

I was interested in knowing more about the way vanilla ties in with other American food items and so I searched the web and searched for references in various kinds of documents on American food or plant. The results amazed me, despite several years of researching chocolate. Most common were potatoes and turkey with the former being a frequent mention in the Queen Anne of Denmark’s Household Book (Harley MS 157) dating from 1613.

Image 1. A entry to “Ordinary diets, daily served for 220 flesh days.” The 10th column is dedicated to potatoes. Queen Anne of Denmark’s Household Book, 1613, Harley MS 157.

A close second was sassafras (Sassafras albidum), a tree native to eastern North America, showing up in botanical, medical, and culinary works by people including James Petiver, Apothecary to the Charter-House (“Virtues of herbs”, Sloane MS 2346), a multi-authored 1619-1674 note-book of medical and culinary recipes (Add MS 36308), Mary Glover’s 1688 cookery and medical receipts (Add MS 57944), and most prominently, in Pierre-Francois-Xavier de Charlevoix’s 1744 history and description of New France. The less well-known, yet nevertheless more popular than vanilla was cochineal, an insect that is tiny and parasitic (Dactylopius Coccus) indigenous to subtropical and tropical Americas which feeds on the prickly pear cacti (genus Opuntia). The bodies that have been dried and ground of these insects give the bright red, tough natural dye carmine. It definitely gave a pink hue to those 17th-century recipes.

Image 2. “An extraordinary medicine for low spirits” makes use of cochineal, lemon, saffron as well as white wine. Recipe collection by Mary Lady Dacres for cooking and home medicine, 1666-1696. Add MS 56248.

The writings that mentioned cochineal, sassafras, and other American substances frequently also comprised chocolate or cocoa in the seventeenth century, for example, the Medicamenta Usitatiora written by George Bate, MD (Sloane MS 519). Chocolate or cocoa was often used in its own (with sugar or milk, water or cream) The most popular flavor that chocolate added is vanilla. It was a flavor that diverse sources from the first mentions until well into the 19th century claim improved the flavor of chocolate (and caused it to cost more! ).

Image 3. Chapter on the cultivation of vanilla in Africa with a drawing depicting the species. The first paragraph in the French text explains how everyone utilizes vanilla to scent drinks that are made from cocoa. Emile de Wildeman Les Plantes tropicales de grande culture-cafe, cacao, cola, vanille, caoutchouc, avec une etude sur la distribution des plantes dans le centre de l’Afrique et des notices biographiques sur les botanistes et les voyageurs ayant contribue a la connaissance de la flore de l’Etat Independant du Congo., 1902, General Reference Collection 7030.dd.20.

Recipes for medical and culinary preparations “white” or “clear” Food items were plentiful and contained flavors like ambergris mace, sugar and cinnamon, however there was no vanilla.

Image 4. “A White Custard” recipe includes egg whites, cream sugar, mace, and sugar. Mary Glover, Cookery and medical recipes, 1688. Include MS 57944.

Why couldn’t one of these substances that was labelled as white change into a opposite of chocolate? I discovered a clue in the seventeenth century observations about the preparation and advantages that came from Chocolate (Sloane MS 1471). After a discussion of the medicinal and sensorial properties in “Bainilla”, the author describes the following “All those Ingredients are usually put into the Chocolatte…But the meaner sort of people, as blackmors, and Indians commonly put nothing into it, but Cacao, Achiotte, Maiz, and a few Chiley with a little Anny seeds.” Chocolate consumption did not differentiate between class and race however the subtleties people incorporated into it made the line between people who were colored and (by in turn white) those with taste. Its “Account of the inhabitants of Cathagena from Ulloa’s Voyage to South-America” in the New York Magazine; or A Literary Repository in July, 1792 is a reiteration of a similar complain that chocolate (there also referred to as cacao) was so ubiquitous that the slave Black individual “constantly allows himself a regale of it after breakfast” and Black women “sell it ready made about the streets” and they ate cacao and wheat bread. Thus, chocolate was inexpensive easy to find and comprised a large portion to the daily diets that was consumed by Afro-Latin Americans, but the authors complain – and thus distinguish their taste from those of South American Blacks that it was not a good (i.e. the purest) cacao: “This is however so far from being all cacao, that the principal ingredient is maize.”

The reason for these and other concerns is that, in the individuals of color the chocolate didn’t realize its full potential as a flavor. Additionally, not every flavor could enhance chocolate. Vanilla was the key ingredient to a great taste that was that is worth the extra cost. This is what led me to the one that astonished me the most that vanilla was increasingly connected with the colour white in food or medicine following the time it was correlated with whiteness in racial groups. Chocolate and vanilla history provide incredible insight into the depth of the creation of racial differences; color didn’t precede the colourization.

Image 5. Chapter on the cultivation of cacao in Africa with a drawing of cacao. Emile de Wildeman Les Plantes tropicales de grande culture-cafe, cacao, cola, vanille, caoutchouc, avec une etude sur la distribution des plantes dans le centre de l’Afrique et des notices biographiques sur les botanistes et les voyageurs ayant contribue a la connaissance de la flore de l’Etat Independant du Congo., 1902, General Reference Collection 7030.dd.20.


Electronic sources to African American History

In the series in which we highlight the wide range of online resources accessible to researchers working at the British Library, this blog will look at a few of the digitally accessible collections that can aid those researching African American History. The entire collection is accessible via the Electronic Resources page, and others are available online after you’ve received the free Reader Pass.

N.B. This article could contain descriptions of images that are not current and/or culturally or racially sensitive.

1. African American Communities

Let’s begin by looking at African American Communities which gives access to a wealth of primary source materials for those studying racial discrimination throughout the political, social as well as religious and cultural arenas in America. It is possible to study a variety of objects, from scrapbooks to official documents oral histories, as well as 360-degree objects that are focused upon Atlanta, Chicago, St Louis, Brooklyn and locations in North Carolina. The topics covered by this resource’s collection include desegregation, racism as well as civil rights movements. the expressions from African American culture displayed through musicians, artists and other.

Before we dive into a few of the information the resource offers the platform itself comes with many very useful tools to navigate through its huge collection that are worth noting. The “Nature and Scope” button on the homepage offers a thorough overview of the topics and archives that available for viewing. It is possible to search documents in various ways since all the documents have been indexed in different categories. You could also conduct a general full-text search. Community case studies as well as essays and thematic guides are also available that provide useful ways to get into the collection and provide some direction on where to begin. One of my favorite features is “My Archive which lets you save and re-visit your past searches, as well as any other documents you’d like to go back quickly and effortlessly.

Some examples illustrate the variety of content to be found in this extensive resource.

Researchers who study civil rights movements and protests are likely to be interested in the collection of documents created or gathered from the Chicago Urban League. These materials explore an important and infamous civil rights demonstrations for housing open, which occurred close to Marquette Park in the summer of 1966 and its aftereffects. The demonstration was instrumental in the development of Chicago as a racially inclusive city as more Black residents relocated to its suburbs. However, as this report demonstrates, even eleven years later, tensions between races and violence were present.

The conclusion of Marquette Park: A descriptive background of the efforts to settle racial disputes peacefully report 1977 (c) University of Illinois at Chicago Library Special Collections access is to the African American Communities e-resource from Adam Matthew

Other documents within this collection Chicago Urban League collection offer information on the social services that were available for African Americans between 1935 and the 1980s. These include the ones related to reproductive health, welfare and youth services general health, accessibility to health facilities, as well as issues relating to the aging and those suffering from mental illness.

Anyone interested in the literature and political histories of African Americans will be enthused through access the online version of The Messenger, offered via The Newberry Library, Chicago. It was established by the city of New York in 1917, the last few years of publication, from 1925 until its last issue in 1928 is accessible through this online resource. It was a significant publication in the early years of the Harlem Renaissance, the magazine was instrumental in bringing voice to African American intellectual, cultural and political expression via articles short stories, short stories, reviews, letters, songs and art. It showcased a variety of writers at the beginning of their careers, for instance, Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘The Eatonville Anthology’ originally published in September 1926 issue of The Messenger. The short stories included in the magazine described different characters from the African American community just outside Orlando and made use of authentic dialect. Her work provided a realistic depiction of Black culture in the American south during the 20th century.

The Messenger, World’s Greatest Negro Monthly September 1926. Includes an excerpt from Zora Xeale’s The Eatonville Anthology (c) The Newberry Library, Chicago, access granted via African American Communities e-resource from Adam Matthew

Different from the typical primary source material that one would think of from these e-resources It is worth mentioning to Weeksville Interactive Exhibition also available on African American Communities. The exhibit is included on the National Register of Historic Places The Historic Hunterfly Road Houses within Weeksville (now Brooklyn) are New York landmarks preserving the houses of a open and autonomous African American community. The interactive exhibit allows visitors to examine the layout and features of the houses from the 1860s through 1930s including 360-degree photographs that opens up a window into the way African American life in a past era might have been for certain. The marketing and packaging choices for food and drinks packaging are especially impressive and could prove to be excellent sources for those studying the history of food and culture as well as art.