Thu | Oct 18, 2018

Extract of vanilla

Published:Saturday | January 17, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Tony Deyal, Contributor

I grew up steeped in philosophy and had no idea until earlier this week when a woman got so drunk that she could not get out of a Walmart car park in Louisville, Kentucky, the Bluegrass State.

The critical factor in my upbringing was 'essence'. There are many different types of essence - it is an Afro-American magazine for women, life force in a role-playing game, and even an episode of The X-Files. In philosophy, however, it is "the attribute or set of attributes that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity, and without which it loses its identity".

Now, mark well that 'essence' is contrasted to 'accident', a property that the entity or substance has 'contingency', without which the substance can still retain its identity. The concept originated with Aristotle, but even Plato jumped into the brew with his suggestion that concrete beings acquire their essence through their relations to 'forms' such as largeness, smallness, equality, unity, goodness, beauty and justice.

If you can't cater for contingencies and you're not a concrete being like a pillar or post, or even a tower of strength or Babylon, you're more likely to survive smelling of essence.


I first acquired my essence in more mundane but stimulating ways, first in cake, then in fruit juice, and even now continue to do so in my tea. I had no idea my lime juice laced with vanilla essence was a philosopher's brew and the bone or even bane of considerable contention between such great men, arguably and argumentatively the best in the business like Roscelin of Compiegne, William of Ockham and Bernard of Chartres.

In fact, their arguments were so popular at the time that they went right off the Chartres. The one philosopher who hit the nail on the head was Edmund Husserl, who postulated that essence is ideal.

And indeed it is. Whether we bought our lime punch, squash, buns or (particularly) sponge cake in a 'parlour' or a 'cake shop', the infusion or addition of generous doses of vanilla essence took them all to new levels of gustatory perfection and delight. I had my vanilla essence in all kinds of pastry, of fruit juice and ice cream and had no idea that it was a philosophical treat.

Dark, in a brown bottle that was initially used for beer, vanilla was the spice of life and its bottled essence could be found in every kitchen. We even called perfumes 'essence', and the one we used most, until sophistication set in, was 'Khus-Khus', which came in small bottles and was generally found around any Indian 'puja', where it was applied to the wrist of every devotee.

Vanilla originated in Mexico and its later history would cause the great Existentialists, Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre, to pause and wonder about the mysteries of the universe. The spice, from which the essence of essences is made, is a flavour derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, which was cultivated by the Aztecs. It could not grow anywhere else because of its symbiotic relationship to its natural pollinator, the local species of Melipona bee.

However, in 1841, a 12-year old slave, Edmond Albius, from Reunion in the Indian Ocean, discovered that the plant could be hand-pollinated and this allowed the global cultivation of vanilla.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron and is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture and aromatherapy. Unless you're a Kentucky woman from Seneca Falls who was arrested by Macedon police for driving while impaired (DWI). Macedon police arrested the woman who was found driving erratically around a Walmart parking lot, drunk on vanilla extract.

The woman, Carolyn Kesel, 46, had consumed two hand-sized bottles of pure vanilla extract last Monday. A breathalyser revealed her blood alcohol content was .26 per cent, more than three times the legal limit. Kesel told police that she could not find her way out of the Macedon Walmart parking lot. She had been trying to return home to Seneca Falls from Lyons and ended up in the Macedon Walmart car park, about 20 miles in the opposite direction. The vanilla extract had a 41 per cent alcohol level, according to police.


What is interesting is the amount of alcohol in vanilla, and perhaps my being partial to it may have something to do with its alcohol content. It has almost as much alcohol and gin and vodka. Interestingly, orange and peppermint extracts have about 89 per cent alcohol. That's 160 proof plus, and close to or even more than 'puncheon' or 'over-proof" rum.

My essence now comes from Madagascar, not the movie, but the country that produces the most popular vanilla around and reputedly the best. Several years ago, my doctor suggested I cut down my coffee intake and try some other beverage. I tried tea, but it did not work for me until I went to Mauritius where a vanilla-infused black tea is like the national beverage. Since then, I have been using it.

Once, when I ran out, I bought pure vanilla extract and added it to my Lipton's. Now thinking about it, I realise why I liked it so much. Then I remembered Miss Betty. She used to come to the neighbourhood shop to buy essence by the bottles and always said, "Is for the cake." Now I realise she used to drink the essence and blow on the cake.

Tony Deyal was last seen in Madagascar sharing some vanilla tea with a bunch of penguins and a lemur and singing, "I like to move it, I like to shake it, shake it."