Friday, December 27, 2019

Not-Plain Vanilla

Papantla, Veracruz
Image: Zona Turística
Spoiler alert for those taking my Secret Life of Coffee seminar in the spring: the final exam always asks students to identify some other common product they use -- food or otherwise -- whose origins they would like to understand better. Just as coffee is taken for granted (often used as a metaphor for anything commonplace and inexpensive), so too is vanilla given no thought at all. Those who have been learning about coffee with me will not be surprised to learn that the production of vanilla is fraught with challenges both economic and environmental.


NPR journalist Carrie Kahn tells the story of vanilla from the point of view of Papantla, a small town in Veracruz, near the Gulf of Mexico and just a bit north of the city of Veracruz, where Hernán Cortés began the Conquest on behalf of Spain.

It is also not far from Puebla, where my wife Pam and I (known as El Matrimónio de Miami) spent the summer of 1989. Because we spent much of our time in Cholula -- the city that stood between the landing of Cortés in Veracruz and the major target of his ambitions in Tenochtítlan (Mexico City), we learned a lot about the treacherous Cortés. We also learned about the importance of chocolate -- especially mole -- in this region. But we had no clue that we were also so close to the origins of vanilla.

It was Cortés, in fact, who first transported vanilla to Spain, one of the earliest instances of transatlantic movements that would be known as the Columbian Exchange.
Columbian Exchange
Image: Nystrom
Sense of place is a very important concept for geographers and travel to the point of origin is a powerful way to learn about the places to which we are connected by global trade. Although we cannot possibly complete such travel to all of the communities upon which we rely, the internet can provide intriguing glimpses into many of those places.

Wanting to know something about Papantla as a place, I started with an image search and was delighted to find this charming video. Even if you do not understand Spanish, I recommend spending the two minutes in which the people of Papantla share their pride in the "three hearts" of their town; the three major sources of pride are the Bird Men, the vanilla (perfuming the world), and the remarkable pre-Conquest architecture.

A second video depicts the art and heritage of the Voladores in more detail.


Lagniappe: A Thousand Thanks

For me, knowing anything at all about the places where my food, beverage, or other goods originate increases my gratitude for all that I have. This is the thinking behind the book Thanks a Thousand by A.J. Jacobs, in which the author finds -- and thanks -- 1,000 people connected to his morning cup of coffee. The book is a quick and uplifting read that will be the community-wide read for Bridgewater One Book One Community in the spring 2020 semester. A great number of activities related to coffee and gratitude will take place between March and April, including several led by me and my students (who do not even know about this yet).

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