SUGAR AND SPICE…and everything nice

This time of the year cooks everywhere are baking up a storm. Cakes, pies, cookies, candies you name it. And guess what spice they’ll use the most. If you said vanilla you would be correct. It’s the most expensive spice after saffron because it’s difficult to grow.


But where does vanilla come from?


Eighty percent of vanilla is produced in Madagascar. It’s an island southeast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. The soil and the climate are perfect growing conditions. Vanilla grows in pods which when picked turn black and shriveled. But oh what a taste and aroma.


It’s rumored that Thomas Jefferson was the first one to use as a flavoring in cooking. Whether he was the first to use it or not, vanilla quickly became the most popular spice in the U.S. Before that, the Totonac Indians of Mexico first cultivated the bean. They used it in rituals long before Columbus came to America. Then it was adopted by the Aztecs who introduced it to Cortez. Cortez brought it to Europe. So it’s been around a long time.


The C.F. Sauer Company in Richmond, Virginia has been selling vanilla since 1884 when C.F. Sauer who was a 17 year old pharmacy clerk noticed housewives by the droves bringing empty bottles to be filled with the flavoring extract. (Vanilla was sold in pharmacies back then because of the alcohol content. During the extraction process, the beans are chopped into small pieces, placed in baskets and then showered with pure grain alcohol. After several days, the liquid is drawn off and mixed with sugar and water to reduce the alcoholic content. Then it’s bottled and sold.)


Anyway, Mr. Sauer started his own business three years later in 1887 and delivered bottles of it by way of horse and buggy. It’s still going strong today and still run by the Sauer family. They import all of their vanilla beans from Madagascar.


Another large producer of the popular flavoring is McCormick. Twenty-five year old Willoughby McCormick formed the company in 1889. Every housewife is familiar with the McCormick brand.


In 2004, a kilo (approx. 2.2 pounds) of vanilla beans fetched $500. Interestingly, Coca Cola uses natural vanilla as a main ingredient along with its cola syrup.


But, like everything else there are imitations. Most artificial vanilla contains vanillin which is a natural polymer found in wood. The imitation is cheaper but doesn’t come close to the real thing in taste or smell.


Do you use a lot of vanilla? What is your favorite thing to bake? Can you imagine what it would be like if we had no vanilla?

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

25 thoughts on “SUGAR AND SPICE…and everything nice”

  1. Madagascar? Seriously?
    So is there NO vanilla grown in America?

    I used to visit my Mother in Law in far southern Texas when she spent the winter there. We’d walk over the border to Mexico and one of our ritual purchases was a bottle of pure, natural vanilla, which cost almost NOTHING. It’s crazy expensive in our local stores.

    I’d usually buy enough to last a year and some years I’d bring vanilla home for the neighbors (wow, I was like a drug mule only with vanilla, that’s alarming!)
    But then I got tired of lugging heavy glass bottles home and quit.
    I loved that stuff though. Real, pure vanilla just smells like nothing else on earth.

  2. Vanilla is so common, I was shocked to learn that it is one of the most expensive to grow. Fascinating history, Linda. Of course, now I’m hungry and I just had breakfast 2 hours ago. LOL.

  3. Great post, Linda. I had no idea 80% of vanilla came from Madagascar. Cool tidbit. I use vanilla all the time. My favorite? Pancakes. Added to the batter, it provides a lovely, extra umph!

  4. What an interesting blog, Linda. I agree that imitation vanilla can’t touch the real thing. And I love the suggestions above. Coffee? Pancakes? Yum.

    I always get Mexican vanilla when I can. It has an extra something, maybe a stronger flavor. A little hard to find but you can get it in Mexican stores.

    FWIW, what I put in my coffee, chocolate, etc is cinnamon.

  5. Hi Linda, I loved learning this new info! I don’t bake a whole lot but when I do, I use some real vanilla Charlene brought me on a cruise she took. As a kid, I remember loving to lick the teaspoon after my mom used some in her cooking! xo

  6. Love vanilla!! Have brought vanilla home from Mexico. Never became a mule, though. Now I use the bottle purchased at the amannba colonies. When I bought the bottle it only had dried vanilla beans in it. Directions said to fill with vodka and add whenever you use some or the liquid is low. I’m loving it!

    Many years ago I revamped a cookie recipe I found in a magazine from a cut out cookie to a spritz type cookie. The secret ingredient is anice oil. It became a family favorite.

  7. Hi Mary, the vanilla mule! You always make me laugh. According to my research, there is no vanilla plants grown in the U.S. It is grown in Mexico but it’s not as huge a producer as Madagascar. I found this so interesting. I learned things I never knew. And wow, adding vanilla to my coffee sounds great. I’m definitely going to try it. Thanks for the tip. Also, did you know that the vanilla plant is of the orchid family? All I know is that it tastes and smells like nothing else.

  8. Hi Renee……..I use vanilla in pancake batter too. I agree with you, it makes the pancakes extra yummy. I use a ton of vanilla and put it in almost every dessert I make. I just never knew where it came from. Thanks for the comment, Filly Sister.

  9. Hi Elizabeth………I use a lot of cinnamon also. Like you said it adds a little something extra to things and goes hand in hand with vanilla. I’ve never used cinnamon in coffee though. Gonna have to try that. Hope your day is extra special.

  10. Hi Tanya………Glad you enjoyed my blog. Treasure that vanilla Charlene brought you from a cruise. Bet you didn’t know it’s so valuable. I liked to lick the spoon also when my mom was making something. Maybe that’s a kid thing. But I couldn’t wait for whatever she was making to get done. My sweet tooth wouldn’t let me. I still lick the spoon today and the bowl too. Old habits are impossible to break. Hope you have a great day.

  11. Hi Connie J……….thanks for stopping by and chatting. Anise oil? I’ve never used that at all. Doesn’t it have a licorice taste? I’m not that familiar with it. Glad you liked my blog. And thanks for sharing the bit about taking dried vanilla and pouring vodka over them. That’s so cool. I’ll bet those dried vanilla pods will last a really long time. Plus, you have something for later when you want that little pick-me-up. LOL

    I hope your day is full of nice surprises.

  12. Hi Linda – I love the scent of vanilla in candles and lotions and the taste in baked goods! When I bake, I lick the teaspoon for those last drops. Yum. I can’t believe how expensive the vanilla bean is. I see chefs use it, scraping the inside of the bean to use fresh vanilla. So I use the bottle vanilla and I always add a bit more to cookies or whatever I’m baking, because the subtle taste is one of my favorites! Great blog!!

  13. Hi Charlene……..I forgot about vanilla in candles and lotions and things like that. I love to smell a vanilla candle. Nothing like it. It’s just great in whatever you want to put it in. A very versatile plant. Thanks for stopping by. I know it’s difficult for people these days to find time. Such a hectic season. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

  14. And then, when you’re tired and the doorbell rings, you dab a bit of vanilla behind your ears and answer the door.
    My Grandmother was known to do this daily! I didn’t know her, but my Mom told me she always smelled so good.
    I never tried the practice, but you would think it would taste as good as it smells… tried it…
    That is a lot like olives off the tree. DON”T.

  15. Linda, what an interesting post. I don’t use a lot of vanilla in cooking. My daughter is a vanilla fiend when it comes to soaps, lotions, candles, etc. I like the smell of it, but there are others I enjoy more. Still, I would hate to think of a world with no vanilla, because I sure do love me some vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup! LOL Great post.

  16. Who doesn’t love vanilla! I’m so glad you can still buy the real stuff. My second favorite is almond extract but darn if I can ever find it – it probably would cost as much as vanilla use to lol. Love hearing about the history. I just read one on nutmeg – another plant that was fought over and got smuggled out so everyone could get it.

  17. Hi Mary J………Thanks for reminding me of the old practice of using vanilla as a perfume. It really does make an excellent replacement. It was very common amongst the frontier women to do that. I’ve never tasted vanilla right out of the bottle but I’ll take your word for it that it’s not the thing to do. Appreciate the warning. Glad you stopped by and joined in the chat. Have a great day!

  18. Hi Cheryl P………I’m so glad my post interested you. I thought it might. But I can’t believe you don’t use a lot in cooking. It’s pure heaven for most people. Sure makes the house smell good. And yes, I can’t imagine no vanilla in Vanilla Ice Cream. That wouldn’t taste too good. Hope your day is going well, dear Filly Sister.

  19. Hi Catslady……..Glad you stopped by. I hope your holiday shopping is going well. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t love vanilla. But like you, I also love Almond flavoring. My mom and aunt had a running argument over how to make a peach pie. My mom said vanilla should be used and my aunt insisted that almond is the correct one. Since they lived together in their later years it was sometimes quite chilly between them when it came to peach pie. I learned to stay out of it. But I really do prefer the almond taste in the pie instead of vanilla. Just adds a little something special.

    And you’ve given me an idea for another blog. Thank you! Hope you find plenty of laughter today.

  20. Enjoyed reading your comments. i remember my Grandmother always laid a dried vanilla bean in her linen closet. I always thought it was to ward off insects. Living here in Arizona, I can get real vanilla for a reasonable price at the Spanish markets. If you are a serious cook, you will not use Imitation vanilla!

  21. Linda, This post is just full of information I didn’t know. I never realized Vanilla was the most expensive “spice.” Very interesting. I love vanilla and use it in so many things. My favorite is to put some vanilla in the with the egg, milk, and cinnamon for French toast.


  22. I am not baking as much as I used to, but still use quite a bit of vanilla. I did buy the artificial flavoring once and gave it away after using it a couple of times. It just doesn’t have as good a flavor.

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