NPR’s Code Switch has an interesting little piece on why it’s odd that we use the term vanilla to mean something that is bland and, in racial metaphors, something that belongs to whiteness or white culture. Like “white bread,” the term “vanilla” implies something so ordinary or ubiquitous as to be uninteresting; on the surface, this seems to devalue whiteness in favor of more “flavorful” nonwhite cultures, but both terms highlight the way whiteness has dominated American culture: we only think whiteness is a blank because it is valued; it is the default. There are positive and negative shades to this figure of speech: as Harryette Mullen points out in the linked article, vanilla is often also associated with purity (not unlike the sugar and sugar bowl images I discussed some time ago). The color of vanilla is white or beige, the colors of sugar and cream with no other flavor added.
The point of the article, though, is that it wasn’t always the case and it’s weird that we think of vanilla this way. Vanilla comes from part of the world that Europeans and European-Americans usually think of as exotic; it was cultivated by brown-skinned natives of South American and then by enslaved Africans in Atlantic colonies. Like many exotic New World plants, it was considered exciting by the European explores: it was sometimes used as an aphrodisiac, sometimes as a stimulant. It was also quite expensive and rare–actually, it’s still pretty expensive, but most of the vanilla products we now taste are flavored with synthetic vanillin. A classic tale: a food is rare and exotic, thus desirable: demand exceeds supply until a new technology or substitute appears; the cheaper substitute becomes so ubiquitous that the food is no longer considered so desirable (although it is considered a basic ingredient).
The trajectory of vanilla is a neat story of material culture on its own, but it particularly struck a chord with me because it reminded me of a book I read some years ago, which became the formative moment in which I decided the pursue the interdisciplinary study of food. Don’t all long-term academic projects have an origin story? In the terms of But I’m a Cheerleader, this book was my Root.
In a graduate seminar on Asian-American literature, I read Circle K Cycles by Karen Tei Yamashita. It’s a many-textured, eye-candy-box of book featuring drawings and snapshots of the author’s life when she, a American woman of Japanese descent, moved to Seto with her family. She had a fellowship to study the lives and culture of the Japanese-Brazilian population in Japan–that is, an ethnically Japanese but culturally creole population whose parents or grandparents had moved to Brazil to work, but who themselves moved to Japan in the wake of Brazil’s economic collapse. One chapter discusses food culture at length, pairing recipes of traditional Japanese meals with their spicier, more filling Brazilian-Japanese counterparts. Yamashita writes about the importance of white rice in Japanese culture–you can’t find any other kind, she notes.
“In Japan, rice must be sticky and polished white. One eats the purity of it. It doesn’t matter if its nutrition is negligible. . . . rice is not really food. It’s production, its purity, its mythic qualities, its value, define every other thing called food.”
In other words, the preparation of rice–the washing, the polishing, the whiteness–is cultural production. It is made a certain way by a certain people, and eating the product of this process is confirms that we are of that people. Other types of rice–the spicy, fatty rice dishes prepared by Brazilian-Japanese, the cheap long-grain rice imported from Thailand–are adulterated, inferior, and maybe not really rice at all. And here, too, the whiteness of rice connotes a kind of racial or cultural purity–but the funny thing is that, as with vanilla and sugar and whitebread, purity is the product of a process of refinement. Rice does not grow this way, it has to be made this way, and it is the making that defines it.
I remember getting worked up about this chapter in class, which prompted one classmate to say “but everyone eats! I don’t see why it matters.” And that, ladies and gentleman, is the Root of my obsession. Of course it matters–all the food choices we make matter.
The argument here is not that the whiteness of polished rice or the imaginary whiteness of vanilla stands in somehow for racial whiteness; these metaphors are not a literal code that can be decrypted or formulas that can be solved for x. But the cultural associations of whiteness and purity and the visual and imaginary associations of these foods overlap in a telling way: scratch at them, and you reveal a network of intersecting anxieties about cultural identity, values, and authenticity.