Should my unborn daughter come to avow a preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate: An imagined conversation


“What color do you think vanilla is?” I dream of asking. This will be a lesson, if it is a lesson, in fact as metaphor, metonymy through field glasses.

“White,” I dream she answers. The color of vanilla ice cream.

In my sage’s dream, I am in the kitchen, or perhaps the dramaturgy admits a period of silent mystery: We are going to the supermarket, I can say, if we are closer to a supermarket than the kitchen, or we can go to the kitchen and I can spend longer than necessary rooting around in the cabinet that holds the spices. In any event, in due time I produce a bottle of vanilla extract. We know what color it is.

“The bottle is dark,” my observant daughter dreamishly protests. At this juncture, the lesson gains texture if we are in the supermarket: I perform a transgressive act, opening the bottle to pour a drop on the floor or on my fingertip (my skin is pale). There may be a digression at this point about the absolutism of values; a pimply-faced minimum-wage employee (“pimply-faced” is lazy shorthand; teenagers take very good care of their skin these days, I think) may bring chastisements only to be brushed off with assurances that the befouled product will be purchased; my daughter may be horrified at my breach of law and protocol, and of course she will be insensitive to the fine pedagogy of it all, her deep skin receptors as yet untuned to the dominant frequencies of the inference that has begun its heavy-footed slouch toward us.

“The vanilla bean is dark too,” I dream of elaborating, “not just the extract. The only additive is alcohol, which is clear.” (The class issue raised here cannot be ignored; inexpensive brands of vanilla extract contain corn syrup, which can be dark, and imitation vanilla, yet cheaper, has nothing to do with the vanilla bean at all. The sage must hold court in the organic aisle.) “Cacao and vanilla both originated in the Americas. They are both derived from beans that grow in fibrous pods; both are difficult to cultivate outside their native territory, although we have found ways. We use them both mostly in sweet foods. Both were imported into Europe by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who killed something like 260,000 Aztecs and Tlaxcalans in the siege of Tenochtitlan.” I have brushed up on my Wikipedia for this dream-lesson. I imagine myself leaning back, spent, against a wall of spices, or of randomly collocated organic items, depending on exactly which store I have chosen as my impromptu lyceum.

What next unfurls is hard to imagine, not because there are too few possibilities but the opposite; every ensuing conversation seems to foreclose the others, and yet they all seem worthy, but to enumerate them would be to transmute this charming object lesson into lecture. We are not slaves to metaphor, begins (or ends) one conversation, but we heed its counsel. (Negative portrayals of Spanish imperialism are known as the Leyenda Negra, the Black Legend.) Or, The fantasy books were wrong: Naming is the lowest form of knowledge. (Personally, I couldn’t tell an Aztec from a Tlaxcalan if one or the other embedded a macuahuitl in my culo.) Or, Of course they taste different. They aren’t the same thing, but they aren’t opposites either. (Cortes’ victory in the siege of Tenochtitlan may have depended on his indigenous allies, dominated by Tlaxcalans but including Huexotzinco, Atlixco, Tliliuhqui-Tepecs, Tetzcocans, Chalca, Alcohua and Tepanecs, all of whom had once been conquered by Aztecs — and this alliance may account for the carnage and rapine thereafter.) Or — and perhaps this is most appropriate for my nonexistent daughter, as the entire premise of this didactic dream rests on her being too young to know the color of a basic baking ingredient — Even chocolate ice cream has vanilla in it. (This may not be true of all ice cream, but it is true of Alton Brown’s Google-topping recipe, and so it is true enough for me.)

The reverse is, of course, not true. And after all that, I still feel guilty for observing this asymmetry.

So much for racial politics. What next?


“Vanilla is the color of maple syrup.”

Close enough; I doubt I could do better. What then? There is nothing to correct. But, of course, the lesson was never about vanilla. Is this whole exercise the didactic equivalent of baking spinach into brownies? I want nothing but the best for my daughter, and if Socrates isn’t there to show her that the slave boy always knew the diagonal of a unit square was sqrt(2), I will do my damnedest with what is at hand. But Socrates had a good editor, and I am working ex tempore. (Maple syrup was first collected by the Algonquins, whose relationship with French conquerors and other Native American tribes would seem to be just as complicated as the Aztecs’ with Cortes and other local civilizations. Perhaps all is not lost.)

“Who cares?”

The gurus of the Internet economy claim that attention is a person’s most precious commodity; my daughter would be more than within her rights to deny the importance of the question. If a blight struck all vanilla beans with a true-breeding albinism tomorrow, her ice cream would taste just as good. In the meantime, her concern with the color of a flavoring agent whose name has become a synonym for mundanity competes with such pressing questions as how to amass resources, find love, forge happiness, and face death well. One must pick one’s battles.

“Why do you care?”

This is not the same as the previous question. This is the one that I would hope and fear the most to hear. It is good if she knows the fact; it is better if she knows what she needs to know, or at least is thinking about it; but it is best, it is critical, if she knows when someone is trying to manipulate her. Socrates’ slave boy, to our knowledge, did not profit from his lesson.

But this is not a question children ask, nor is it one whose answer they should credit. If adults are not to be trusted with the best interests of children, still less are children. There is an irreducible conflict at the heart of this relationship, which we maintain even through its nadirs is based on love.

And so I leave the question. Why do I care to force this cunning little parable down the throat of a girl with thoughts and passions of her own? What change am I trying to work in her, and who will benefit the most from it? I could speculate, I could defend, and so I do, in the chambers of my own mind; but, if she should not trust my answer, why should you?


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