Reader Leeza asks if the earliest users of vanilla (the Totonac) put it in anything other than chocolate. Actually, Leeza, it seems that the Totonac didn’t eat vanilla, they used it solely as a perfume, which is, you know, also a pretty darn good idea.
Most people are surprised to discover that vanilla orchids, a addition to not being all that pretty, have almost no scent. The fruit is unremarkable, and so are the seed pods — at least until you cure them in the sun and store them in boxes for five or six months, at which point the develop the magical aromas we pastry enthusiasts are all too familiar with. How did the Totonac think of that? Who knows? Trial and error, probably.
The Totonac have an interesting origin myth about vanilla that goes like this: there was once a princess by the name of Tzacopontziza (no, I can’t say it either). She was so beautiful that her father, the tribal chief, decided that no earthy man would ever despoil her. So he had his priests consecrate her to a goddess by the name of Tonacayahua.
Of course teenagers being what they are she soon after fell in love with a young man by the name of Zkata Oxga. The two ran off together to the mountains, but before they could consummate their love they were pounced upon by a minion of Tonacayahua, a huge fire-breathing beast. The beast kept them prisoner until Tzacopontziza’s father arrived and beheaded them both out of pique, because there was no anger management training in those days.
As the legend goes, on the spot where the princess’ blood spilled the vanilla orchid grew, and it has been venerated as a scared plant ever since. But again, all the effort the Totonac put into vanilla was solely in the interest of perfumery. Totonac women were known to wear vanilla beans in their hair, and often kept bunches of the pods suspend in homes as a sort of pre-Columbian air freshener. It wasn’t until the Totonac were subjugated by the Aztecs that vanilla became a foodstuff, an ingredient in chocolate.