I’m a vanilla snob. For some it’s olive or eggs or salt. When I’m at the spice area in my grocery store, I routinely push the row of imitation vanilla back and over. It helps me pretend it doesn’t exist. Some of my earliest memories are of my maternal grandmother making me a tall thin glass of not too cold milk with a spoonful of sugar and a capful of vanilla mixed in, and I can vividly recall the barely granular film at the bottom for which I would patiently and painfully wait to slide down within reach of my finger. My fondness turned to obsession during a trip my husband and I took to Washington DC a little over five years ago, one of my favorite vacations ever. We spent zero money on entertainment by hitting museums and national monuments by day, and in the evenings we spent our entire budget on some of the most memorable and transporting meals of my life.
Like the seven-course tasting menu at a Japanese fusion restaurant downtown. We mistakenly assumed the dish, only available for two, was priced at the substantial sum of $80 for the meal as a whole. But we had spent the morning at the Freer Gallery and the afternoon with Lincoln, so a $200 dinner was just about the total cost of our day. Unfortunately for our chef of local celebrity, one of the few foods I physically cannot eat is a tiny egg, and the fifth course was something edible covered with them. We endured a long, disapproving glare from the kitchen window and a terrified waitress for the subsequent two courses, yet in spite of the ambient tension and roe stare-down, it was the best evening my mouth has ever had.
Anyway, our one authorized shopping spree was to Dean & Deluca, where Mr. P stocked up on teas for the next half decade, and I struck up an affair with Bourbon Vanilla, named after the island off Madagascar formerly called Bourbon Island (now Reunion), on which the beans are grown. My first 4-oz bottle of Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Paste lasted about a month. Of course, most of its depletion was due to late night dippings. The flecks of real bean are novel indeed, but its underlying adult flavor turns a batch of chocolate chippers into a dangerous mass workplace aphrodisiac. I’ve settled into general use of the more understated vanilla extract of the same brand after trying a few others, and the two dollars more than whatever you can get at the supermarket are well worth it. Speaking of which, I think it’s a good day to hit Williams Sonoma with Billy the Kid.