Few earthly substances are as wholly complete to the senses as honey and vanilla.
The first, honey: pure sunshine thick, the golden currency of the plant realm, the nectar of the gods bestowing potent immortality. The second, vanilla: unsurpassably warm and inviting, derived from the fruits of a tropical orchid, its use as a powerful aphrodisiac skillfully honored in bedrooms and baked goods for centuries.
And now comes the cupcake uniting the two, in special honor of the Goatsnake song, “Flower of Disease.” A fluffy, frosted mound to deliciously embody sex and deathless exhilaration, ambrosia for the gods of heaviness.
This post is a triple assault by two of my favorite writers and myself. Invisible Oranges’ Cosmo riffs on a doom metal classic, and Metalcakes’ Kathy custom created “Flowers for Dessert” in tasty commemoration. This Phyte Club post is only complete with a visit to these two other sites; read on below for the botanical lowdown on why honey and vanilla, despite a colloquial bad rap as submissively sweet and blandly innocent, respectively, are two of the most metal edibles the plant kingdom has to offer.
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In the ancient Indian medicine tradition of Ayerveda, honey is considered the shukra, or purest essence of the plant world. And really, can there be a more fundamental recipe than that of honey?
Step 1.) Combine sunlight, carbon dioxide, water, and chlorophyll
Step 2.) Make plant-based natural sugars through photosynthesis
Step 3.) Secrete nectar in glands called nectaries, generally located at the base of flowers. The main component of nectar is natural sugar, though it also contains various amino acids and other chemicals
Step 4.) A female worker bee (Apis sp.) sucks up nectar into her abdomen
Step 5.) The lady bee returns to the hive and begins a cycle of regurgitating the nectar and eating it, puking and re-eating, again and again. Eventually, the nectar is transformed into the desired quality, and the product is put into the honeycomb, stored as a food source for the winter months when flowers are typically scarce
Step 6.) The honeycombed nectar still contains an overabundance of water and natural yeasts, so the hive-bound bees fan their wings to produce a draft, which drives evaporation. This in turn raises the nectar’s sugar concentration (by reducing the amount of water), and so alleviates the threat of fermentation
Step 7.) A human beekeeper removes the honeycomb from the hive and harvests the ripe honey, ready to be used in mead, medicine, and brutal cupcakes
Thus, honey is shukra, honey is bee barf. Same idea.
For thousands of years, humans have collected honey, the world’s oldest easily obtainable sugar. In Valencia, Spain, there’s a 10,000 year-old cave painting of two naked women with baskets climbing a ladder to reach a wild hive (prehistoric soft core
plant porn?). Ancient Egyptians were accomplished beekeepers, and employed honey as an embalming fluid to prevent dead flesh from putrefying for as long as possible. Considering honey’s antimicrobial properties – enzymes in the liquid produce hydrogen peroxide – this makes sweet sense.
The mythological and religious associations between honey and the gods of several cultures are too epic to cover here in their entirety, but most involve those twin states of immortality and inebriation. “Nectar” is a Latin word meaning “overcoming death,” derived from the Greek “nek” (“death”) and “tar” (“overcoming”). The pantheon of Greek and Roman immortals chose nectar as their signature drink, using it to wash down their ambrosia-food that also sustained their agelessness (“a” = “not” + “mbrotos” = “mortal”). In Hinduism as well, honey, or madhu, is one of the five elixirs of immortality.
But the gods weren’t lounging around sucking from the nectar spurs of hundreds of flowers, immortals buried in petal carcasses. No, it is assumed this legendary nectar was referring to mead, an elixir of fermented honey that came long before wine or beer (the ferment for mead is honey’s naturally occurring yeast). Bees — the buzzing link between flowers and drink, the insect alchemists — were considered messengers of the gods; honey was once thought to originate as dew on flowers that grew in heavenly realms and was collected and stored by bees.
Mead is tasty, mead is sacred, and like most alcoholic beverages, mead is lusty. It is, after all, the juice of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. In medieval times, those oh-so metal centuries of dark castles, princesses, and bloody warriors, lovers used mead as an aphrodisiac. The term “honeymoon” came from “honey month,” (moon = month, remember?) an ancient Persian (or some say, Viking) tradition in which couples drank mead daily for the month after they married to ensure a successful union, based on the assumption, it would seem, that lots of drunken sex makes for a good partnership. The “mead moon” was the name given to the full moon previous to midsummer, which fell at the summer solstice and was when the mead was made. No surprise this brewing schedule coincides with wedding season.
The human obsession with escaping death and getting laid may be all wrapped up in a long relationship with honey, but it reminds me a lot of one of my favorite kinds of music. The power inherent all three concepts – immortality, sex, heavy metal – is a product of transcendence. In one of my well-loved nerdy academic-books-about-that-which-shouldn’t-be-academiafied, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal (1993), Roger Walker argues for the power chord as the defining feature of the genre:
“The power chord…is used both to articulate and to suspend time. It is a complex sound, made up of resultant tones and overtones, constantly renewed and energized by feedback. It is at once the musical basis of heavy metal and an apt metaphor for it, for musical articulation of power is the most important single factor in the experience of heavy metal. The power chord seems simple and crude, but it is dependent upon sophisticated technology, precise tuning, and skillful control. Its overdriven sound evokes excess and transgression but also stability, permanence, and harmony.”
Let’s see how well Walker’s description stands up to the two godly ideas – sex and immortality — that aren’t usually accompanied by electrified and distorted perfect fourths or fifths (of course, I can only pontificate upon immortality, but as ecologically ridiculous as it is, I think most of us have delusions of permanence, and if I were around forever, I would most likely still be listening to lots of power chords). Articulate and suspend time? Check. Constantly renewed and energized? In the best cases. Articulation of power? Totally. Simple and crude yet sophisticated and skillful? Yep. And finally, evocative of excess, transgression, stability, permanence, and harmony? I think so.
Is this to argue that honey is “metal,” as is everything these days from hamburgers to blankets to your mom and, uh, plants? Nah, just to say the same forces driving our ancient relationship with flower nectar, bees, and the end product are much the same as those behind the spirit of heavy metal.
And though it won’t make you overcome death in the style of Zeus, honey could provide a means of escaping death, if only for a few extra days or years. According to the book, Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, honey contains over 75 different compounds, including enzymes, plant pigments, organic acids, esters, antibiotic agents, and trace minerals, as well as important proteins, carbohydrates, and hormones. It’s rich in B vitamins, which are essential for testosterone production, and in boron, too, an element helping regulate estrogen levels and potentially re-hancing the libidos of post-menopausal women.
Medicinally, honey is a natural antiseptic. Although some of the causes of this antimicrobial activity are scientifically known, such as the aforementioned natural production of hydrogen peroxide, one study also noted the “unidentified substances from certain floral sources” as a contributing reason. Glad there’s still some mystery out there. As such, honey can be used topically as a salve for wounds and burns (get hurt in the pit? Burned from a wayward cigarette?), and is well known as a natural remedy for soothing respiratory ailments. A squeezy-bear bottle of bee barf should be a staple on tour buses for all metal singers and growlers – Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow touts the benefits of warm water with honey the day before a performance on her “Vocal Advice” page. High on Fire sells their own hot sauce, maybe Death should market their own honey?
There are rare times, however, when honey is responsible for severing dreams of immortality. Honey produced from the nectar of poisonous plants, such as oleanders, rhododendrons, mountain laurels, sheep laurel, and azaleas can cause death or at least “honey intoxication.” Symptoms include weakness, dizziness, excessive sweating, nausea, puking, and, less commonly, low blood pressure, shock, heartbeat irregularities, and convulsions. Though I sometimes experience all these things at metal shows (except maybe not low blood pressure), it’s not from eating poisonous honey.
My preferred type of honey intoxication is by drinking the fermented brew. Mead! To pair with the “Flowers for Dessert,” Goatsnake-inspired Metalcake, I’d choose Heidrun Meadery’s Oregon Meadowfoam Blossom Honey Mead. When I first came
across this variety of sparkling honey wine, my botanical obsession was still young; I thought “meadowfoam” was only a romantic allusion, a pretty word conjuring images of endless sea green fields and the pale golden spit of trysting fairies. I was super wrong. Meadowfoam is a real wildflower! It’s in the Limnanthes genus, with all nine species native to the west coast of North America. Heidrun, a meadery located in Arcata but currently moving to Point Reyes Station (the site of a future Phyte Club get-together, perhaps?), makes this mead from the native Oregon species (Limnanthes alba), the nectar of which, they say, “contributes a creamy light vanilla quality to its derivative honey,” with hints of jasmine, too. Can we get a better Metalcake pairing, here?
Vanilla and honey are indisputably compatible. Like tulips and daffodils arranged in a Mason jar or say, Goatsnake and Electric Wizard on tour together, they share many similarities but enough differences, too, to make them interesting alone yet highly complementary as well. Whereas honey is the nectar of the mead-soaked immortals of the Old World, vanilla was a prized extract in the New, combined with chocolate and chili pepper in a drink reserved for the elite, kings, and again, gods, among the indigenous civilizations of Mexico and Central America. Honey provides medicine and aids amorous feelings as the keystone ingredient in mead, and vanilla provides a sexy remedy of its own by jump-starting passion, a medicine for if your libido’s like a mosquito (thanks, Kurt).
But above all anthropocentricities, both are products derived from moments in the life cycle of a flower.
I can’t, unfortunately, claim to have yet encountered Vanilla planifolia, the orchid from which we get the substance “vanilla,” in the green flesh, neither in the wild nor in a garden. A member of the second largest plant family on earth, the gaping Orchidaceae, it is native to the tropics of southeastern Mexico and Guatemala, and to the West Indies. There are about 110 species in the Vanilla genus, all of which are vines, climbing through the canopy toward the sun like a beautiful girl sitting on her lovers’ shoulders to get a better view of the stage at an arena show. Once the V. planifolia vine reaches ten feet-long, it’s considered mature, though lengths of up to 82 feet have been recorded (that’s about seven stories tall). Its species name gives away the shape of its leaves: “planifolius” = “with flat leaves;” what it doesn’t mention is their dark green color, leathery texture, short and oblong character, and alternate arrangement on the stem. And the genus name, as well, allows few questions regarding the shape of its two-inch wide, greenish-yellow flowers: the Spanish “vainilla” is a diminutive of “vaina” which means “sheath or pod,” and comes from the Latin “vagina.” Though the lippy blossoms are indeed very sheath-y, the moniker actually refers to the fruit, a pod which must be split open in order to expose the seeds.
The flowers last only a day. Available for a quickie, and if a willing pollinator doesn’t come around, well, shit happens; V. planifolia can also self-fertilize, which gets the job done, too. Often, the day-old flower is simply dropped.
Worthy insects, though, are hard for this orchid to find. Like many species of the highly-evolved Orchidaceae, it has developed an intimate, highly specialized relationship with only one pollinator, the Melipona bee. Not much bigger than a flea, this “mountain bee” is native to Mexico and is the only insect that holds the key to this orchid’s heart of pollen. (be a voyeur: watch a 3:44 minute video of their relationship). It’s like true love or something.
Until 1841, though, this exclusive mutualism eluded the rest of the world, which had been trying and failing to grow fruitful vanilla vines since 300 years before when Cortez brought the plant, and the taste for its delicious extract, back to Europe. But botanical observation coupled with a child-slave’s intelligence finally made the mass availability of vanilla extract a reality.
As Wikipedia tells it: “In 1836, botanist Charles François Antoine Morren was drinking coffee on a patio in Papantla (in Veracruz, Mexico) and noticed black bees flying around the vanilla flowers next to his table. He watched their actions closely as
they would land and work their way under a flap inside the flower, transferring pollen in the process. Within hours, the flowers closed and several days later, Morren noticed vanilla pods beginning to form. Morren immediately began experimenting with hand pollination. A few years later in 1841, a simple and efficient artificial hand pollination method was developed by a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion, a method still used today. Using a beveled sliver of bamboo, an agricultural worker lifts the membrane separating the anther and the stigma, then, using the thumb, transfers the pollinia from the anther to the stigma. The flower, self-pollinated, will then produce a fruit. The vanilla flower lasts about one day, sometimes less, so growers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers, a labor-intensive task.”
Imagine if your job was to hand-pollinate Vanilla orchids…..
The pods, or “beans,” grow to be six to nine inches-long and take five months to fully ripen. But straight off the vine, the green pod looks quite different from the characteristic brown-black vanilla bean that gives your ice cream the appearance of being speckled with fine dirt. In order to extract the vanilla essential oil, the beans have to be cured first. The whole process, from the
hand-pollination on farms (at a typical rate of about 1,000 flowers per day) to the drying and extraction steps, makes vanilla the second most expensive spice after saffron. This is why synthetic vanilla oil is so often used for fragrances rather than the real thing, and substances called “vanilla flavor” don’t use any true vanilla at all but are instead typically synthesized from eugenol (clove oil), waste paper pulp, and a chemical called “coumarin,” found in the Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata). Furthermore, V. planifolia holds the distinction as the only orchid – and remember, there are about 25,000 Orchidaceae species out there, at least – widely used for industrial purposes. Though it’s still grown in its native habitat in the Mexican and Central American tropics where it was once so enjoyed by the Aztec court, in 1819 the French shipped it to Madagascar and the neighboring island of Réunion (the ex-French colony formerly known as Bourbon). Today, Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla extract, offering a balanced, “dark” flavor compared to Mexico’s softer, less expensive variety.
For being such a hard-to-get species with high maintenance reproductive requirements, vanilla is a renowned aphrodisiac. Perhaps its pussy power name has something to do with it. Or maybe the shape of its petals, or its long pod. According to Cosmo[politan] in its “List of Foods for Better Sex,” Vanilla “mildly stimulates nerves, making sexual sensations feel even better.” A friend recently told me she’d heard it’s men’s favorite smell for a woman to wear because it reminds them of when their mom would bake cookies. This is a little too Oedipal for me, but supposedly, according to the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Center, those afterschool cookies had a major impact.
- Take 125 grams of chopped or ground vanilla pods
- Macerated them in 1,000 grams of 95% ethyl alcohol for two weeks
- Carefully filter
- Use directly in cooking or mix with jojoba or almond oil for massage oil
Or better yet, make the botanically-inclined Flowers for Dessert Metalcake after reading about the awesome doom-i-ness that is Goatsnake. Though honey and vanilla are far from products flowers of disease (in strict adherence to the featured song), they will combat it, be it of the respiratory tract or the mojo. Heal thyself: Eat some frosting! Play some metal! Conjure immortality, sex, and power!
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p.s. This post was killer to work on with Kathy and Cosmo — I feel very lucky there’s such cool, creative stuff floating around the blog realm, and that I’ve been able to be involved. Thanks, guys. Infinite hearts and horns thrown in your directions!