When I set out to develop a recipe to properly acknowledge our nation’s birthday, my instinct was to make something that looked like the flag, because isn’t that what everyone does on the 4th of July?
For my culinary tribute to America, I decided instead to focus on the flavors that make a food distinctly “American.” But a funny thing happened during my research into America’s top flavors—the story behind our No. 1 flavor overran everything else on my mind. It’s a tale that involves other countries, explorers and a 12-year-old Black slave whose scientific discovery is still used in the production of vanilla today.
Here’s the short version:
In the early 1800s, Spanish explorers visiting Mexico returned home with some of the orchid plants used to produce vanilla. Back home, they were disappointed to find the plants never developed the long, slender pods that give us the vanilla bean. It was a pollination problem, and European bees couldn’t solve it.
But Edmond, a 12-year old slave in the French colony of Réunion, not far from Madagascar, figured out a way to intervene in the pollination process—sort of a botanical IVF, if you will—and the rest is history. His process of pollinating by hand, by the way, is still used in vanilla production today.
Like so much of what we love in America, vanilla came from somewhere else. And by way of someone whose contribution far outweighs the recognition he received for it. For much of Edmond’s life, he wasn’t even allowed to have a last name. At the end of the post, check out the link to a more thorough telling of Edmond’s story.
By the way, how ironic is it that a flavor often used to describe anything plain, bland or uninteresting is the most enduring ingredient in American culinary history? I do so love vanilla, and I am grateful to Edmond Albius, who finally received a last name when his owner also gave him freedom and full credit for the discovery. In honor of Edmond, I’m highlighting the familiar warm, floral notes of vanilla—our country’s top flavor—in a bourbon cocktail. A splash of extract will step in with the cocktail bitters, and America’s No. 2 flavor will make an important appearance as well, in the form of a black pepper simple syrup.
Let’s do this.
2 oz. bourbon
0.5 oz. black pepper simple syrup* (recipe in notes below)
1/8 tsp. real vanilla extract
3 drops bitters of choice* (see notes for suggestions)
Combine ingredients in a cocktail mixing glass, add ice and stir for 20 seconds until the glass looks frosty. Strain over a giant ice cube into a double old-fashioned glass.
Simple syrup is exactly what it says—simple. The base is equal parts water and sugar, and you can take it anywhere you like from there by infusing it with other flavors.
1 cup filtered water
1 cup cane sugar
2 tsp. whole black peppercorns
2 tsp. cracked black peppercorns (I used a mortar and pestle, but the coarse setting on a pepper mill would work just as well)
Combine water and sugar over medium heat and bring to a light boil. Add peppercorns and turn off heat. Stir to be sure sugar is completely dissolved, and let the mixture cool completely before straining, then refrigerate in a sealed jar.
My husband and I have different taste, so I tried the drink with two different bitters varieties; chocolate for him and 18-21 “Havana & Hide” for me. Use any bitters you like. They don’t stand out much, but serve more to accentuate what’s already good about the drink. You can even skip the bitters and let the vanilla shine brighter.
If you’re a food history junkie like me, you’ll appreciate this article, which delves further into the inspiring story of Edmond Albius, the boy botanist whose legacy became the most prolific flavor of our nation’s entire history.
Cheers to you, Edmond. Thank you for flavoring our world.