By and large, Americans seem to like vanilla ice cream better than chocolate.
The International Ice Cream Association, which should know, puts vanilla at the top of the charts as first choice of 29 percent of ice-cream eaters, feebly followed by chocolate (8.9 percent), butter pecan (5.3 percent), and strawberry (5.3 percent).
Given our passion for vanilla, it seems peculiar that “plain vanilla” is the going synonym for anything basic, bland, or blah. A plain-vanilla wardrobe lacks pizzazz; plain-vanilla technologies lack bells and whistles; plain-vanilla automobiles miss out on chrome, fins, and flashy hood ornaments; and plain-vanilla music is the sort of soulless drone that afflicts us in elevators. The truth is, though, that plain vanilla is anything but dull.
Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, a sprawling conglomeration of some 25,000 different species. Vanilla is a native of South and Central America and the Caribbean; and the first people to have cultivated it seem to have been the Totonacs of Mexico’s east coast. The Aztecs acquired vanilla when they conquered the Totonacs in the 15th Century; the Spanish, in turn, got it when they conquered the Aztecs. One source claims that it was introduced to western Europe by Hernán Cortés-though at the time it was eclipsed by his other American imports, which included jaguars, opossums, an armadillo, and an entire team of ballplayers equipped with bouncing rubber balls.