August 6, 2008 at 9:41PM
by Deirdre Dolan
Taking care of small children doesnt exactly tax the brain. Most days involve a variety of repetitive activities that are far from stimulating, if almost totally mind numbing. Recently I was at a friends whose parents live with her so they can be around her kids. Her parents are child psychologists and there are no two more dedicated people when it comes to the face time, but for the mind numbing stuff like laundry, toy sorting and meals, her mother straps on a fanny pack and walks around listening to books on tape. I was pretty impressed when she told me how many books shed read so far this summer because it takes me weeks to creep through page-turning novels. But then on Tuesday I opened up the Science section of The New York Times to find a story making a case for my totally disengaged brain. The idea of the piece was that boredoms kind of a good thing because falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative...
Dr. Mark Mintun, a professor of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis says that even when the brain is disengaged, say chopping apples or rinsing diapers, its actually highly active -- only consuming about 5 percent less energy than usual. It was probably in one of these disengaged states that I started thinking about something my friend said about giving up vanilla because it was made from wood. It didnt sink in at the time, but Ive since looked it up and hes right. Maybe this is part of your general knowledge already, but it was news to me that natural vanilla flavoring is rarely used because its expensive around two bucks a bean. Natural vanillin comes from the seed pods of a native Mexican orchid and, after saffron, is the priciest natural flavor out there. The unnatural kind, which is often used, is actually synthetic vanillin. Its made from either the petrochemical guaiacol, or from lignin, a natural constituent of wood, and a byproduct of the paper industry.
Apparently its nearly impossible to taste the difference between the wood vs. natural vanillin, so I will be reading the labels more carefully and asking questions about cakes and desserts and ice creams to try and avoid wood pulp in my diet (those beans that come packaged in your vanilla ice cream are added for effect, not flavor).
Everette Humphrey, a former Science teacher from Michigan, has figured out a way to pollinate vanilla, but I doubt Ill taste the benefits of his handiwork any time soon. In the meantime, when its 100 degrees and youre not sure whats in the ice cream cone youre dying for, maybe go with the chocolate.