FROM A PROFIT perspective, the appeal of synthetic vanillin is clear. True vanilla is a demanding crop, so labor-intensive that at times the market value of the beans has surpassed that of silver, weight for weight. And since each bean yields only 2 percent vanillin at best, the cost of pure vanilla is even higher. In 2017, after a cyclone decimated farms in the mountains of northeast Madagascar, where around 80 percent of the world’s natural vanilla is grown, the price of beans leaped to more than $600 per kilogram, which, at the rate of 20 grams of vanillin per kilogram of beans, comes to $30,000 per kilogram of pure vanilla. As of 2012, 80.7 percent of the country’s population subsisted on $2.15 a day and, although the vanilla boom may have lifted incomes, it also radically inflated prices — a chicken was suddenly $10 — and sparked a proliferation of crime, with machete patrols required to protect the fields (as chronicled by Wendell Steavenson for NPR in 2019).
The vanilla bean on my desk comes from the small Hawaiian town of Laie on Oahu’s North Shore. It’s longer and darker than the other vanilla beans in my cupboard, its fragrance more insistently narcotic. Saili Levi, who was born in Samoa and moved to Laie at age 7, started planting vines in his backyard in 2018 after a friend and colleague at the local water company found one growing in the wild. He now runs a farm, Laie Vanilla Company, full time on a larger lot, with dark mesh panels slung above to shade the drapery of vines, and enlists his three young daughters to keep vigil over the plants. (His wife is a nurse.) Hawaii is the only place in the United States where vanilla is commercially harvested, with only a few farms currently dedicated to it, and Levi’s is the only one on Oahu.
This is difficult, uncertain work. To begin with, while the vanilla orchid — planifolia is the species most widely grown — is a hermaphrodite (like most flowering plants), with both male and female parts, it can’t pollinate itself. So when botanists first attempted to transplant it outside its native Mexico, far from its natural pollinators, it wouldn’t bear fruit. Europeans had to make do with beans brought by ship across the Atlantic until, in 1841, a 12-year-old enslaved child named Edmond, toiling on a plantation on the island of Réunion (at the time a French colony) in the Indian Ocean, figured out how to coax vanilla beans from a barren vine. He had been taught to pollinate separate plants by hand; with planifolia, he adapted that method to a single plant, gently lifting the flap between the male anther and the female stigma so the pollen from one could be thumbed off on the other, in what botanists call marriage.
Hand-pollination can be performed only when a flower blooms, which happens once a year and lasts a matter of hours. Fortunately, each orchid may bear as many as 20 flowers over the course of a couple of months, although growers warn that it’s best not to try to pollinate them all, to encourage fewer but plumper beans. On the vine, they look like something between haricots verts and very slender green bananas in bunches. Once plucked, they must be cured, which can take months, in a process that includes being blanched in hot water or thrust in a freezer to halt the ripening; wrapped in wool or kept moist in a hot box to sweat so the starches break down into the coveted vanillin; then dried in the sun or a dehydrator, with constant monitoring to make sure they don’t get brittle, and left in a sealed container for the scent to deepen.