How to extract the essence of vanilla
Yet more information you may never need. Unless — you’re arbitrarily relocated from a context in which there’s a choice between the artificial and the real, and placed in another where such choices don’t exist. And worse, they’re absurd.
Let’s clarify. You, brown immigrant in a white country, lived for long with a swing-door sense of your own artificiality and reality. Your brown skin made you real, even to yourself, as the bearer of experiences and insights and culinary techniques from elsewhere. The Mistress of Spices. Who could question your ultimate authenticity? Like the old Sociology professor said, pointing a finger to the white student who objected, in one of those vast University theater classrooms: you are going to challenge a person who comes from that culture? Your authenticity was your very own; you had carte blanche to perform it, conjure it, fake it. You wielded that sort of weapon.
Moving from Big Town, USA to Small Town, India, however, changed everything. It’s not so much that you lost the weapon that was your ethnic authenticity. It’s that you traded it for farce, fakeness, and mimicry. What irony. To return to the source of your real self and find the neighborhood boys all sporting Playboy, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein: discards of global manufacturing excess, the brand managers’ nightmares–but who cared in this garbage heap, when the real brand markets were elsewhere?
You’d be grateful for the excess, too, at first, as the source of cheap clothing and sweet revenge for years of overpayment. You’d rummage for Gap, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, and Great Plains labels on street-side racks and delight in the victory of finding $119 skirts and linen pants for Rs.150. It would be like having your brand and not paying for it either.
But it would be hard to miss the imperfections. Sizes were never right. Buttons were often generic (added after the reject had been issued, salvaged for the domestic market). Labels had often been mutilated or obliterated. These garments were not sanctioned; their authenticity was denied. Even when you could tell it was an Ann Taylor skirt, and even when the Playboy bunny mocked you with his pointy ears and pointy bowtie, you’d know it was now not-quite-real. Buying in was like performing in a theatre of mimicry, with someone else’s meanings and all their leftovers.
Who cared? Not others, and not you, really. But, having lived on the other side of the global divide, you’d take this as yet another sign of what was poignantly different, here.
The food would be different, too, especially in the pâtisseries. Cream frostings were unusually stable, for weather so hot and humid. The chocolate glazes were always like deep brown lakes in the moonlight: still and sheened. Cakes stayed always delectably moist. They rose, almost on cue, into a perfect sponginess. They looked consistently the same, as though produced on an assembly line or the result of some strange genetic experiment that could happen only in a trial-ready therapy-naïve population such as India. They were cloyingly sweet–enough to kill you.
You would fret over failed creams and flat cakes, and wonder what secrets were at these bakeries, where bachelor boys in hairnets dressed sheet cakes with cute pigs and flowers as effortlessly they dressed themselves in export surplus t-shirts.
But then you would take a bite—and realize that you’d found the mutilated label here, too.
The cakes rise because of “cake gel,” a combination of humectants and emulsifiers “specially designed to produce superior quality cakes with increased volume and finer crumb structure.” The whipped toppings were unblemished thanks to sugar and stabilizers and the use of “some substance resembling cream.” The chocolate was often not even chocolate, but cocoa dregs reassembled with vegetable fat and sweeteners as “mass” (brown stuff, not to be confused with chocolate liquor) and “compound.”
And yet, nobody seemed to mind—neither about bow-tied bunnies circulating hilariously out of context, nor about cakes of dubious composition. Here was a culture steeped in its own poverty, where starvation is addressed with “nutri nuggets” [desiccated, texturized vegetable protein made of de-oiled soybean meal], and elite aspirations with imports. Here was a member of the BRICs, a global player, an India Shining, an emerging market that had no middle options,though its middle classes grew exponentially and round in the middles. Here was a country that had, somewhere, somehow, forgotten how to eat well anywhere but home—or never understood that eating is as much a tool of democratization as affirmative action reforms.
All this, you minded. Desperately. If you weren’t to be ethnic any longer, your FabIndia ethnic cotton wear notwithstanding, then you needed some new source of authenticity—some new center of yourself that was, if not real, then at least not-artifice.
You’d look around and find real flour (and much else gluten-free besides), real chocolate (tellingly, imported and expensive), real sugar (even muscovado), real cream (even if it did turn to butter on the slightest whisk and always needed just the right thinning), real butter (Amul, of course).
But there was one ingredient you’d not find, no matter how hard you looked: real vanilla. Nobody had it, nobody even knew what it was, or why it mattered. You’d ask the man at the supply shop with the sickeningly sweet smell, and he’d pull out bottles, each one an artificial flavoring. You could ignore the lemon, the coconut, the almond (though you’d wince at that one). But real vanilla was a staple of your baking existence. How could you do without?
The beans would show up in stores: a sign that you were not alone in seeking realities amidst the impoverished excesses of the artificial. And when you found those, you’d sense the possibilities opening. If you could fake it, then you could make it. The time had come to learn how to extract the real essence of vanilla.
Extracting vanilla essence is a simple matter of inserting vanilla beans into a bottle of vodka (whose flavor is mild enough not to overpower the taste of the vanilla). Even so, you’d do silly things at first. Like finding a bottle of Absolut Vodka, and steeping your beans (of dubious quality) in so fine an alcohol. You’d tell this to friends, triumphantly, and watch them shudder incredulously: you did what with Absolut Vodka? So long had you been immersed in opulence, you’d not been taught to realize its rarity. You’d search for other, cheaper, local sources—only to find more spaces between realities and artifices. Smirnoff on the label, but bottled in India (expensive, but affordable) vs. Smirnoff on the label and not bottled in India (unaffordably expensive, at least for the sake of vanilla).
You’d settle for the former—“made in foreign,” as labels in the smuggled goods market would once have been labeled, or at least under the foreign sign, but assembled here. Good enough for real vanilla, uncompromising enough for you.
And then, you’d wait. For the beans to steep, and overpower the vodka with their delightful fragrance and rich color. For the delicate luxury of real vanilla essence in everything that demanded vanilla. In the hope that those who shared in your baked goodies could smell and taste the difference between the heartlessly mass-produced, and the wholeheartedly home-baked. Passionately believing that somewhere, somehow, some local kid who’d never known better would taste the difference and not settle for less. Praying that your care for each ingredient would make up in flavor what you were yet developing in skill as a pâtissier. There was precious else you could do in this new home of yours, but hope. And wait, and hope.