Tarcher, 372 pp., $22.95
Just about everyone instantly recognizes the flavor and aroma of vanilla, but most people don't realize that natural vanilla comes from the fruit of a climbing orchid, or that it has recently surpassed saffron as the world's most expensive spice. Patricia Rain, who has dedicated much of her life to the study of vanilla, is a culinary historian and lecturer, vanilla broker (www.vanilla.com), and longtime advocate for small vanilla growers worldwide. From this multifaceted expertise, she's written a compelling and readable account of the history, anthropology, and complicated politics surrounding this most popular of flavorings. Topics include the peculiar botanical attributes of the vanilla orchid; its uses in medicine, aphrodisiacs, and perfumes; the 17th-century Jewish vanilla traders of the Caribbean; and Thomas Jefferson's introduction of vanilla ice cream (via France) to the United States. Rain intersperses sweet and savory vanilla recipes that illustrate the text.
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