Vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world. It is also a symbol of the ordinary, with bland overtones.
How can this be? How can we elevate something but also call it meh?
Start Googling the History of Vanilla and you’ll come to the story of Queen Elizabeth I.
She loved Plain Vanilla Ice Cream, (so do I). Before the Queen’s daily Plain Vanilla fix, ice cream tended to be served with mix-ins, like fruits and nuts.
The Queen was, like, ‘just give me the ice cream.’
I’m with her.
This is an interesting historical glimpse, but it doesn’t answer the question about vanilla and mediocrity. She meant ‘Plain’ in the sense of, ‘Unadulterated,’ which is not the same as bland.
Googling the History of Vanilla also leads to the question of Why Vanilla Ice Cream is White in the First Place. Vanilla beans aren’t white and neither is vanilla extract.
The answer is that only one tablespoon of the dark brown vanilla extract goes into a quart of vanilla ice cream. The other ingredients like cream and milk and white sugar overpower the brown and make the resulting mixture white.
French vanilla ice cream with all the egg yolks has a light yellow hue, but it’s still basically white.
Historical Googling was a dead end in my effort to understand the Vanilla Anomaly.
Next I thought about actual utilization. Vanilla complements many other flavors perfectly. Many things are better when you add a little Vanilla.
The only discussion of the Vanilla awesomeness/blandness question that I found on the Web is a 2005 Slate article focusing on Vanilla only playing a supporting role. It’s never the star. Thus, Plain Vanilla.
I disagree with this explanation on two counts.
First, Vanilla does not play its complementary role by being bland. It plays its role by adding a noticeable and distinctive dimension.