Vanilla comes from the seedpods of a beautiful orchid. It originated off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico when the Totonac Indian tribe learned to process the seedpods to extract a wonderful seasoning agent. The Aztecs, who conquered the Totonacs, demanded the vanilla seasoning in payment of taxes. Spanish conquerors gave it its name vanilla-meaning "little pod"-and carried it back to Europe. Europeans eventually learned to use vanilla extract in many different dishes.
In 1847, an American discovered that he could extract the vanilla flavor by chopping the orchid pods and soaking them in a mixture of alcohol and water. The vanilla extract is used extensively in the United States, while many European cooks prefer to use the whole orchid pod, much as the Totonacs and Aztecs did. Imitation vanilla is a synthetic form of vanilla made by a chemical process. Either the extract or imitation can be used in recipes calling for vanilla.
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