Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world, second only to saffron. This high cost is due to its labor-intensive production. The process, quite literally, requires years to hand-pollinate, harvest, “sweat,” dry, age, and process. Add to this that the vanilla “bean” is actually the fruit of an orchid (Vanilla planifolia) – the only one (of 20,000 varieties of orchids) that produces vanilla. And the bloom only opens for pollination for just a few hours on a single day of the year. Vanilla is actually not one flavor, but a complex arrangement of many (more than 250) that are produced by enzymes during the “sweating” phase of its production.
Despite the huge amount of time and labor that goes into the production of vanilla, it still remains the most extensively used flavor in desserts. There is hardly a dessert that does not contain some amount of vanilla. And chocolate lovers: all chocolate candies and desserts have vanilla added – yes, even semi-sweet and dark chocolate have vanilla. In fact, chocolate would be bitter and difficult to eat without vanilla. Desserts wouldn’t be worth their calories.
The great effort to produce vanilla and its value to flavoring our foods reminds us of another spice in life: the people that sweeten and flavor our lives, those who are kind, gentle, and loving. Our world is filled with sour and hurtful people who spread their bitterness and pain. But the kind and gentle folks among us sweeten society and make life tolerable for others. But these virtues of love, kindness, gentleness, and patience do not come naturally or easily. God goes to great lengths and labor to develop them in us – through long periods of adversity and affliction. Yet those who possess these virtues are people of extreme value whom God will use to flavor the earth and sweeten every situation.
In the Gospels Jesus likened his disciples to spices that flavor a tasteless world (Matthew 5:13-16). But he warned His followers that, should they lose their “flavor” – i.e. the virtues that make us a blessing to others and a joy to God – we will become useless to God and our fellow human beings.
Dear Father in heaven, grant that the harshness of the world will not rob me of my flavor. Please keep my spirit fresh and sweet and make me a blessing to my fellow human beings. Amen.