IMHO Skip the sriracha, make mine vanilla

By Ron Scopelliti

Cravings. We all get them. It’s part of being human. We have no control over them, and though we can choose not to act on them, we can’t simply make them go away. Lately I’m worried about my cravings. It’s not that I’m craving things that are harmful or dangerous. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite – my cravings have become alarmingly bland.

In the old days I’d crave enchiladas, or decadent creamery ice cream, or Belgian abbey ale. But last week, out of all the things in the world I could crave, I found myself craving Cream of Wheat. How did this happen, how did I become the sort of lame dullard that craves Cream of Wheat?

Maybe it’s a reaction to the overall chaos in the world. Chaos at all levels of politics. Economic and environmental uncertainty on a massive scale. Star Trek taking yet another opportunity to change the way Klingons look. Is it any wonder I crave the simple, reliable taste of Cream of Wheat?

But the issue isn’t just limited to Cream of Wheat. Lately, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation of what might be the world’s most neglected flavor – vanilla.

I can’t think of a flavor that gets less respect than vanilla. People seem to think of it as a non-flavor – to the point that it’s become synonymous with “plain.” And I have to admit that I grew up thinking of vanilla that way. When I’d eat Neapolitan ice cream, the vanilla was always something to be dispensed with rather than savored. It was like a placeholder – the whitespace that provided contrast to the real flavors of chocolate and strawberry. But lately I’ve been drawn to the flavor.

I think it started when I got hooked on Vanilla Life cereal. I’ve always liked Life, which is pretty bland to begin with. What could be more boring than adding vanilla to it? But somehow it works for me.

Then I noticed that I like “Golden Oreos,” which won’t even give vanilla the courtesy of calling it by name. And every time I go to the outrageously complex soda machine at Five Guys, I end up plowing through several layers of menus get to the Barq’s vanilla root beer.

It could be that it’s a reaction to fad flavors. For a while, it seemed like you couldn’t go to any chain restaurant without finding the word “asiago” on the menu, Then it was chipotle, and sriracha, and salted caramel. And every year, like a bad movie sequel, we have the return of pumpkin spice. It’s like the Godzilla of fad flavors, stomping over all the others for two months each fall. And you can’t just avoid it – I swear that stores were using pumpkin spice air freshener this year to boost sales.

The only thing that makes me abide the presence of pumpkin spice is the horrifying knowledge that as soon as it’s gone the sensory assault will move away from my nose and my taste buds. Then my ears will have to endure the annual barrage of Christmas music. I’d gladly put up with pumpkin spice all year, if it meant never having to hear another Mariah Carey Christmas song. Or, now that I think of it, any Mariah Carey song.

Say what you will about vanilla; at least it isn’t a fad. It’s been around for centuries. And despite its supposed plainness, vanilla actually has a rather exotic origin. It’s from South America, just like chocolate, and it was introduced to European culture around the same time as chocolate. And it actually comes from a rather striking orchid. How many flavors that we eat on a regular basis come from such an exotic lifeform?

Unfortunately, though it originated from a beautiful flower, the flavoring, like many things, got more unpleasant as it became popular. Since harvesting real vanilla flavoring from orchids is labor-intensive, people have found artificial versions that come from less attractive sources. Vanillin, for instance, is found in wood, and apparently it’s often obtained as a byproduct of the pulp used in papermaking; Castoreum, on the other hand, comes from the castor sacs of beavers.

So, since my box of Vanilla Life lists neither natural vanilla nor vanillin, I’m pretty sure that the whole grains and milk in my morning cereal bowl are accompanied by beaver excretions. Yet I’m still craving it.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like vanilla will replace Cherry Garcia as my preferred Ben & Jerry’s flavor. It’s not like I’d ask the Dead Milkmen to change the “fudge banana swirl” reference in “Punk Rock Girl” to “fudge vanilla swirl.” It’s just that in a world of truffle-oil tater tots, burgers with sriracha aioli, and salted caramel Crown Royal, sometimes it’s good to know that vanilla is still there. Now if they could just come up with vanilla-flavored Cream of Wheat…