By: Gisselle Venable
When it comes to history, the focus usually lies in large events. There’s the obvious, such as wars, then there’s revolutionizing acts that were known to alter the course of history, such as the invention of the airplane.
Yet, something else lies in the depths of history, something else entirely: the unknown. Edmond Albius, the man born into slavery who revolutionized the pollination of vanilla, falls into this category.
We often don’t take the time to think about how the objects we use in our day-to-day life came to be. Vanilla is a staple for baking and savory cooking, and you can find it in nearly every grocery store. It’s strange to think that at one point, it only existed in the form of a plant with no known form of artificial extraction.
Albius was only 12 years old and enslaved on a plantation when he discovered the ability to hand-pollinate vanilla orchids. The only other method was the natural pollination by bees, which was not as nearly efficient as it needed to be.
Albius’ method was revolutionary, taking the male and female parts of the plant and mating the two to create more beans. The only beans that existed outside of Mexico were those that were brought there – there was no success in artificially pollinating vanilla until Albius’ discovery in 1841. Even today, Réunion, the island where Albius discovered this method, remains among the top vanilla producers in the world.
Unfortunately, Albius did not live to see the profits or legacy of his accomplishments. After he was freed as a slave in 1848, he continued to face racial discrimination and did not receive pension for his services to the vanilla industry. He died in poverty in 1880 at the age of 51.
Today, Albius’ advances in the vanilla industry are relatively unknown. Yet, there’s no denying that he left a large impact on culinary arts in the past, present and future to come. It’s easy to disregard the history of everyday objects like that, but in retrospect, there’s history in everything.
Everything has a story behind it, and every creation has a creator. As Black History Month comes to an end and we move through the year, it’s important that we give recognition where it’s due and appreciate the advancements we have in the present thanks to those in the past.