Here’s something I’ve always wondered…

Vanilla arrived from the New World at the same time chocolate did in 1520. Its arrival coincided for a reason, namely that vanilla was considered an essential element in the liquid chocolate cocktail that Cortez was first served by the Aztecs (along with corn meal and honey). It wasn’t until some 80 years later that anyone thought to use vanilla on its own as a flavoring. That anyone was a fellow by the name of Hugh Morgan, royal pharmacist to Queen Elizabeth the First. He used it to flavor his medical concoctions and started something of a fad in the process.

My question is: how did vanilla, an essential component of chocolate both then and now, come to be seen as chocolate’s practical opposite? The white yin to chocolate’s dark yang? It makes no sense, and I’ve never really read anything on the subject. How did vanilla come to be seen by so many (notably kids in ice cream stores) as in fact the near opposite of a flavor? It’s a mystery, at least to me. If anyone has any ideas on that I’d love to hear them.

26 thoughts on “Here’s something I’ve always wondered…”

    1. Hey Steve! I see what you’re saying, but vanilla really isn’t white…it’s black. The things it tastes best in (milk, cream and what-have-you) are white. That’s the thing that I can’t get around. They really aren’t opposites in that way, even though it seems that way. Odd, no?

      – Joe

  1. Huh. Fascinating. A similar (at least in my brain) question: Why in the world does *everyone* know that Humpty Dumpty is an egg when the nursery rhyme never actually says that?

    I don’t think I thought of vanilla as anything except a lack of chocolate until my parents discovered Breyer’s vanilla bean ice cream when I was in high school. All vanilla-flavoured confections up until that point had been, to me, “plain”, and not flavoured at all. I still prefer a good dark chocolate, but can appreciate vanilla as it’s own flavour now, of course!

      1. Hey Jeremy!

        I’m not exactly following you there. Can you explain a little more?

        – Joe

        1. I think Jeremy is referring to Humpty Dumpty being an egg (as illustrated in Alice Through the Looking Glass) – nothing to do with vanilla 🙂

  2. I think you answered your own question in there. But I have another question: WHEN did vanilla start to be known as the opposite of chocolate? I think that will lead to the “why.” Because if the timeline is at all connected to the “creation” of ice cream and adding flavors to it, then the “opposite” stuff may have come about just because of the visuals, as you mentioned, not the flavors. Makes me think of angel and devil’s food cake, although I think that was more deliberate.

    1. Interesting stuff, Chana! I’ll see if I can find anything about it. Thanks for the good ideas!

      – Joe

  3. What an interesting thought! All of us “automatically” think of vanilla as the opposite of chocolate. But why? I’ll be lurking this post to hear other’s comment about it.

  4. Ask any five-year-old and they will give you the definitive answer. Because! ¯\(°_o)/¯

    The Chocolatiers have a very powerful lobby in place on the Hill, whereas vanilla lags behind in every category except tastiness. I’d say it is time for a revamp of the Vanillin’s PR team , before we attempt a coup d’état.

  5. Chocolate is an intense flavor which lingers inside of your mouth; vanilla is richly flavored yet light and refreshing.

  6. A very blind guess on my part would be that it might have something to do with race and or class separation issues in the old time. Somebody fell in love with the aroma of vanilla but wanted it isolated from the “staining” power of cocoa…I am sure there was a time when a marketing strategy such as this would have been a well functioning one, especially if the cost of one was considerably higher than the other, and since refined chocolate back then was still in the process of invention, with all the steps needed to make it what it is today. I remembered having seen a book ( a contemporary book ) with the title ” I am chocolate, you are vanilla” which talked about racial issues and kids and it popped into my mind, even though my logic is reverse on the timescale here.

  7. It is a perplexing question much like everyone I knew growing up considered cats the female of the same species as the dog who was the male….

    Maybe it has something to do with a time when there weren’t 31 flavors to be considered and vanilla or chocolate were the 2 options available? I dunno. But it seems like that time has passed and if you asked most kids today (and if they could articulate it) they’d probably come up with the same dualistic view.

    As Dave so aptly put it: ¯\(°_o)/¯

    1. I love that emoticon. Meant to say that.

      But very true, chocolate the opposite of vanilla, cats the opposite of dogs, we need Claude Levi-Strauss in here to instruct us on the binary nature of the human mind. Thanks, Rainey!

      – Joe

  8. Hmm. I wonder if it does have something to do with the ice cream and cake described above? I think in many people’s minds you could make a vanilla , and then add chocolate to it to make it chocolate flavored. That would be the case with cake and ice cream, at least to some extent. And the period of time when these things became household knowledge were during the last 100 years, no?

    One side note -this theory could also apply for many a flavor – vanilla being the base with something added to it to radically change it. Hence, I think, the analogy of vanilla to being simple, uncomplicated, expected, or even boring. Chocolate and vanilla flavors are not opposite, vanilla is simply the absence of chocolate.

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