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Chocolate and Vanilla

May 16, 2013

As soon as we get out of this little cold snap in upstate New York, ice cream season will be upon us. And that’s a serious deal out here. That’s why the last two spring tours have been the Tour de Soft Serve and the Tour de Homemade Hard Ice Cream. In preparation for this spring’s tour I want you to start thinking about two classic flavors.

Something interesting occurred to me this past weekend about chocolate and vanilla. And I probably would have never considered the topic had it not been for the crowds inside Bella Napoli on Mother’s Day.

There was a fellow next to me who was looking to buy cannoli. I’m not entirely sure why, but the clerk asked if he wanted chocolate cannoli. So the guy mulls over the question for a moment and says, “No, give me the vanilla ones.”

That’s when the obvious hit me like a ton of bricks.

Bella Napoli doesn’t sell vanilla cannoli. They sell chocolate cannoli and plain cannoli. But when people think about chocolate, its opposite is instinctively vanilla. Except that couldn’t be more wrong.

Really, it’s an insult to vanilla. And perhaps one of the reasons why vanilla gets a bum rap.

“Do you want a chocolate cupcake or a vanilla one?” That’s an equally common refrain. Except most of the time there isn’t a vanilla cupcake. Usually it’s a yellow cupcake with vanilla icing. And that’s a different thing altogether.

One could imagine a vanilla cupcake, perhaps made with vanilla sugar in the batter. It could be speckled and loaded with the floral perfume of this truly stunning flavor. But I think there are some who find yellow cake to be lacking because on some level they are expecting vanilla and it’s not.

Unflavored versions of decadent treats can be fun too. In a simple sweetened ricotta cannoli filling, you really get to appreciate the flavor of the cheese. Just like the Danish Cream flavor at the Ice Cream Man. It’s just the sweetened cream base of all their flavors, served without any bells or whistles.

It’s kind of badass, since any flaw in the dish has nowhere to hide.

In my mind the opposite of chocolate is white chocolate (since it has no cocoa solids which are what make chocolate chocolate in the first place). But even that is a very tenuous argument. I can’t think of anything that’s the opposite of vanilla. And that’s really okay. Flavors don’t need to have an antithesis.

The truth is actually that chocolate and vanilla work very well together. A little vanilla in chocolate really improves the flavor of the chocolate. And the bitter complexity of chocolate enhances vanilla, whether that’s chips in ice cream, hot fudge sauce, or a chocolate glaze on a vanilla custard filled pastry.

Opposites are a powerful shorthand, and like the above example, most of them are wrong.

The opposite of ketchup isn’t mustard.
The opposite of a hamburger isn’t a hotdog.
The opposite of cake isn’t cookies (nor is it ice cream).

Foods don’t really have opposites. Seriously. What would be the opposite of an orange? Or the inverse of pasta? It makes my brain hurt even thinking about the possibilities.

The important thing to take away from this is a reminder to examine your preconceptions. It’s possible that something you believe to be true simply isn’t. And also one should evaluate each flavor on its own terms. Just because something is white doesn’t make it vanilla. Even if there is a chocolate version sitting right next to it on the shelf.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 16, 2013 10:34 am

    You forgot another basic set of non-opposite staples: salt and pepper. They’re like a savory mirror of vanilla and chocolate.

  2. Megan permalink
    May 16, 2013 1:07 pm

    The opposite of the vanilla frosty (blasphemy) is not chocolate. It is malt flavored original. Not chocolate. This consistently annoys me at Wendy’s as the original flavored frosty is really the only thing I ever order there.

  3. May 16, 2013 2:01 pm

    But a “plain” dessert probably has some vanilla (extract, anyway) in it. And “vanilla” has long been adopted as a synonym for “plain,” at least in some contexts.

    Also, I think the opposite of cake, if one had to declare one, would be pie. It’s not that these things are opposites in a strict sense, but rather, that you tend to be offered the choice of one or the other — cake or pie, vanilla or chocolate, mustard or ketchup.

  4. Betty permalink
    May 16, 2013 2:54 pm

    chocolate milk or _________ milk – ask any kindergartner :)

  5. Deedee permalink
    May 18, 2013 5:07 pm

    “Just because something is white doesn’t make it vanilla.” You should add: just because something is brown doesn’t make it chocolate.

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