Though most Americans may not think of orchids when they hear the word vanilla, the exotic Mexican tropical plant produces the fruit we know as the vanilla bean or pod. Centuries before Cortez invaded Mexico in 1519, the Mesoamerican Indians held the plant (Vanilla planifolia) in high esteem as a blessing of nature, and used it for trade and exchange.

In 1572, Bernal Diaz de Castillo described how chocolate was first drunk as a beverage, a bitter-tasting drink made from the cocoa plant and flavored with ground vanilla. Cortez himself tasted it at Montezuma's court. Shortly thereafter, the Spaniards shipped vanilla back to Europe, where it was touted as an antidote to poisons as well as an aphrodisiac.

Author Tim Ecott's new book Vanilla: Travels In Search of the Ice Cream Orchid is a fascinating blend of history, science and travelogue. Ecott's pages are filled with legends and surprising stories about the world's most exotic and sensual plant: an orchid that traveled the world but would not bear fruit outside of Mexico until a 12-year-old African boy named Edmond Albuis developed a process for cultivating it in 1841.

In keeping with his penchant for obscure subjects (his first bestseller, Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World, captures his scuba-diving adventures), Ecott presents a cast of interesting characters including farmers, brokers and ice cream makers he tracked down in Mexico, Tahiti, Madagascar, England and America.

Vanilla is a compelling book along the lines of The Orchid Thief and Orchid Fever that fans of the fascinating subculture of orchid growing are sure to love, and one that will make others wonder what the world would be like without vanilla. After all those centuries, it is more valuable today than at any time in history. Cooking instructor Wuanda M.T. Walls is finishing a cultural memoir cookbook.

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