A Present and Absent Thing: How Nineteenth-Century Vanilla Can Help Us Think about Edible Things

by Claire Bunschoten

Part of the series “New Directions for Thing Theory in Literary Studies: A Forum.”

In “Mrs. Washington Potts,” a short story by Eliza Leslie, the absence of vanilla beans—one critical ingredient, one thing—throws the Marsden household into chaos. Leslie, a nineteenth-century author of cookbooks and short fiction, whose contemporaries include Lydia Maria Child and Sarah Josepha Hale, deeply understands the power of things to affect one’s social status. Her culinary writing and short stories, like the Godey’s Lady’s Book 1832 prize-winning “Mrs. Washington Potts,” are full of carefully curated menus and contingency plans for when edible things run awry, such as the case of the missing vanilla beans. Rather than follow Leslie through to the resolution of culinary mishaps, I sit with the absence of these vanilla beans and the affecting power of their thingness which I term their presence of absence. Although we are often confronted by the immediacy of things, it is necessary to consider the presence of absence to better understand the dynamic relations that emerge from edible things, especially when encountering them in historical contexts. I first consider absence across food studies, material culture studies, and theories of materiality, including thing theory, to develop the presence of absence as a conceptual framework. I then return to the works of Eliza Leslie and analyze vanilla’s presence of absence through “Mrs. Washington Potts” to argue that the desire for vanilla conjured in its absence speaks to the social aspirations of middle-class white women and their assertions of good taste in 1830s America.

The problem of the present but absent vanilla beans is both examined within and indicative of food studies, a field plagued by missing ingredients. Historically oriented food studies projects especially grapple with the past’s long-empty larders and food’s ephemerality. Textual accounts, compared to material remnants of food long rotten or digested, are relatively shelf stable and vital sources for food studies scholars working to understand people’s relationships to food beyond the physiological necessity of eating. Almanacs, shipping records, agricultural journals, letters, recipes, cookbooks, and literature are all vital objects of analysis. Most food studies scholarship, in the emphasis on the food itself, focuses on food production, processing, and eating. Yet, what happens when these flows of consumption are disrupted or when these sources point to food’s absence?

The material absence of food typically evokes physiological hunger, yet the issue of the Marsdens’ absent vanilla beans is less about the body than the material cultural circumstances of the time period. [1] I was first introduced to presence of absence in a seminar led by material culture scholar Bernard Herman who has published on things from vernacular architecture to terrapin stew. In trying to develop a sense of the presence of absence’s history and applications, he pointed me in the direction of Anna L. Hawley’s and Anne Smart Martin’s work from the 1980s on early American probate records and the absences present in those inventories—missing knives and pewter tableware—and the questions they generated. [2] Hawley cautions that “before we make inferences based on the absence of certain items we need to keep in mind the possible reasons why those items were not listed,” why they are absent from probate records. [3] I heed Hawley in my approach to absence. Each object must be thoroughly analyzed and contextualized to parse the thingness that emerges in its absence. Yet food does not have the durability of things like metal cutlery.

Bill Brown argues that “the thing (the thingness of the object) emerges in and as a relation.” [4] In the case of the missing vanilla beans in Eliza Leslie’s fiction, the desire to cook with vanilla—a relation to this object—catalyzes the encounter of its thingness and signals where it is “arrested” in social flows. [5] It is not the vanilla beans themselves that throw the household into chaos, but it is an effect of their immaterial thingness. I argue that this immaterial thingness may be conceptualized as a presence of absence. That is, although we typically think about things as tangible, we still feel their effects even when they are absent or immaterial. More recent work in the fields of anthropology and sociology, for example, takes up the presence of absence to grapple with the intersection of what is not there, yet what is felt in everyday life. For scholars more oriented to theories of materiality, absence allows for analysis that extends well beyond issues of signification or representation. Death and memorialization are two areas where this concept has been particularly useful. [6] Others, such as archaeologist Severin Fowles, see absence as a rejoinder to thing theory’s emphasis on physicality and new materialism’s tendency to center a thing in a web of relations without considering the way non-things may interact within those spaces. These works agree that absence is a significant analytical site, because regardless of a thing’s immateriality it “still influences people's experience[s] of the material world.” [7] Our relationships with things do not start and end with their physicality, just as our relationship with food does not start and end with eating. Thinking with an object’s capacity for presence of absence allows for a broader consideration of a thing’s manifold, contextual relations.

To illustrate this concept’s application, I turn to vanilla beans in the works of Eliza Leslie. At first glance, this absence of vanilla beans in “Mrs. Washington Potts” might suggest that vanilla was simply an expensive ingredient and difficult to access, which is true but not the whole story. In Eliza Leslie’s writings, vanilla is “experienced as a presence precisely because its absence is marked or emphatic.” [8] Yet, like Elaine Freedgood observes in The Ideas in Things, vanilla “does not ascend to metaphorical structure,” but rather tells us “something we already know about the subjects who use them.” [9] Following Freedgood, as well as Hawley and Martin’s call to contextualization, situating vanilla in Leslie’s early nineteenth-century America is vital to understanding vanilla’s presence of absence and its accompanying social effects in “Mrs. Washington Potts.”

The cured fruit of an orchid, vanilla beans were an incredibly expensive ingredient in the nineteenth century. The vanilla orchid, Vanilla planifolia, is indigenous to Central and South America and grows best in mountainous coastal forests near the equator. Vanilla beans were foraged by Indigenous communities such as the Totonacs in the modern state of Veracruz and used to flavor chocolate beverages favored by the Maya and Aztecs. Around 1760, the Totonacs began to plant vanilla around the towns of Colipa and Papantla on community-owned forest hills and meadows near the port city of Veracruz. Over time, vanilla became more intensely cultivated to increase yields. [10] However, the plant’s slow growth and laborious curing process continued to limit the supply. Each vanilla bean takes nine months to mature on the vine after successful pollination during the half-day annually that the orchid flowers bloom. Once harvested, the green and flavorless beans must be cured for three months to develop their highly coveted aroma and characteristic brown color, an entirely manual process.

Although European botanists had been interested in vanilla for largely taxonomic purposes since the seventeenth century, attempts to grow vanilla beans outside of Central and South America largely failed. Things changed in the mid-nineteenth century when an enslaved 12-year-old boy named Edmond Albius on the island of Réunion, then a French colony, invented a hand pollination technique in 1841 that revolutionized vanilla cultivation. By using a small stick and his fingers to join the plant’s sex organs, Albius was able to coax the plant to fruit. [11] French colonies in the Indian Ocean rapidly adopted the process and their vanilla plantations, manned by enslaved laborers, increased global supply and lowered vanilla bean prices. However, the supply of vanilla never met the global demand.

Notably, Albius’s invention follows Leslie’s story by nine years. In 1832, Leslie’s American characters would depend upon Mexican-grown vanilla, much of which was shipped first to France before being shipped back across the Atlantic to major American port cities. Leslie was born and raised in Philadelphia, a gastronomic hub in the early nineteenth century, and home to early American experiences of vanilla primarily in the form of ice cream. At this point in American culture, ice cream flavors were diverse and exploratory. Vanilla, as a flavoring for ice cream, was just as novel as oyster; famed American cookbook author Mary Randolph made sure to include them both in her 1824 book The Virginia Housewife. [12] The first reference to vanilla in Leslie’s own writing appears in 1832 in the short story that changed the course of her literary career, “Mrs. Washington Potts.” [13]

Leslie’s work as an author started with a cookbook, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (1828), which was largely based on her training at the first American cooking school run by Mrs. Goodfellow in Philadelphia. [14] Seventy-Five Receipts was well-received and her publishers in Boston encouraged her to write children’s fiction. Although subsequently publishing volumes of juvenile short fiction, Leslie’s career as a fiction writer truly advanced in 1832 when Godey’s Lady’s Book awarded her a prize for “Mrs. Washington Potts.” Her work thereafter was published regularly in Godey’s as well as in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine. [15] Leslie’s short stories, as analyzed by contemporary literary critics, “present moralistic messages to children and bourgeois, middle-class ideals of womanhood to adult readers.” [16] The same is true of “Mrs. Washington Potts,” a satire that lambasts high society snobbery and rewards simplicity and modesty as virtuous ways of living. The social tensions of this story are reflected, in part, in the food that underlies it, which is where vanilla’s presence of absence communicates so much about good taste and social power.

The story is set in a small country town outside of Philadelphia and follows the modestly positioned Mrs. Marsden and her daughter Albina as they attempt to impress a worldly and wealthy acquaintance, the titular Mrs. Washington Potts. The primary foil to the humble Marsdens, Mrs. Washington Potts represents everything wrong with the nouveau riche. She flits between New Orleans, London, and Paris, flaunting her expensive yet garish tastes. As one character describes, she is an “irresistible contagion of folly and vanity.” [17] The Marsdens, despite their characterization as sensible, virtuous middle-class women, are completely enamored with Mrs. Washington Potts and decide to host a party for her to win her favor. The preparations are elaborate, crowned by a stylish menu starring a homemade vanilla ice cream. Yet their plans are thrown into disarray by a missing ingredient: vanilla beans.

In lieu of vanilla, the Marsdens decide to flavor the ice cream with lemon, a much more accessible and popular flavoring for ice cream in this time period. This simple swap of flavors, however, triggers an avalanche of substitutions: ingredients must be reallocated, and recipes amended with only hours to spare before guests begin to arrive. Menus, like social systems and hierarchies, are mutually constructing and interdependent. Despite their best efforts, the preparations run awry. The ice cream, ultimately, is contaminated by salt and rendered inedible. The party is a disaster.

Striving to impress Mrs. Washington Potts through this failed party and disastrous ice cream highlights differences in socio-economic class and emerging notions of American propriety. The burgeoning middle class in the early nineteenth century, where the Marsdens socially teeter, were caught between dual impulses towards practical, thrifty household advice and the preparation of elegant meals, as cookbook scholar Megan Elias observes. Moreover, in this period, “style began to matter just as much as substance,” and the stylish choice of vanilla, a luxury ingredient, is clearly meant to impress Mrs. Washington Potts if not communicate a shared, classed, taste affiliation. [18] After all, as scholars of the nineteenth century observe, as more Americans had the money to do so they “demonstrated desired class affiliations through performance of wealth and leisure—in other words, by copying the tastes of the elite.” [19] It is clear that vanilla ice cream is not a regular staple in the Marsden household, or they would not run into the issue of sourcing it on the same day of their party. The missing vanilla seems to reflect the too-high social aspirations of the Marsdens. What they desire, they cannot reach.

These social tensions are further enunciated by vanilla’s revealed absence. In the midst of their preparations, the Marsdens learn from the Black servant, Drusa, that the local shopkeeper has never heard of “that there bean you call wanilla;” the revelation shocks the family and Mrs. Marsden immediately condemns the shopkeeper, Mr. Brown, as “ignorant” for his lack of vanilla knowledge. [20] This moment constructs a world of vanilla insiders and outsiders dictated, in part, by race, gender, and class. Mrs. Marsden is the only character with explicit knowledge of vanilla. The story makes clear that she is a knowledgeable cook of middle to upper middle-class background bent on leveraging her experience to win the favor of a higher-class white woman with supposedly even finer tastes. Whereas Drusa, the Black servant, is less familiar as evidenced by her pronunciation of “wanilla” (although this could also be read as a racist dialectical characterization). And the shopkeeper Mr. Brown, presumably a middle-class white man who may not have had exposure to life in a city like Philadelphia, is also left on the outskirts. Vanilla, in this fictive context, belongs to the echelons of well-to-do white ladies, foreshadowing its contemporary connotations of whiteness.

What does the presence of absence of vanilla reveal to us about the people who cared enough about vanilla to mark it down although they may not have had access to it? For Leslie, vanilla’s presence of absence communicates a sense of style and class affiliation, a desire to belong to a higher social class for the Marsdens. For the other characters, vanilla’s thingness is more challenging to discern. For Drusa, vanilla’s presence of absence may be a problem to solve, just one more excessive luxury that the Marsdens insist upon arbitrarily. For the shopkeeper Mr. Brown, vanilla’s presence of absence may spark curiosity about a new ingredient. For the party’s attendees, who were never privy to Mrs. Marsden’s vanilla ice cream plans, they still feel vanilla’s presence of absence in the oversalted lemon ice cream prepared in vanilla’s place. Reading for moments of vanilla’s absence in nineteenth-century social worlds demonstrates the complex raced and classed relationships people have to each other and this thing that both is and is not there.

Over time, vanilla became increasingly accessible to Americans. Albius’s technique, combined with technological developments in chemistry, see the rise of vanilla through the turn of the twentieth century and into the present. And as vanilla proliferated, its thingness asserts itself in other absences. Namely, vanilla becomes boring and functions as a cultural baseline not unlike whiteness. By the twenty-first century, vanilla is a fragrant-flavor so naturalized, so familiar—flavoring everything from lip gloss to room sprays—that its ubiquity lends itself to a different kind of absence; vanilla is so common that it fades from view. Although the contexts and characters change over time, vanilla’s presence of absence persists in American culture. Perhaps ironically, in being able to identify vanilla as present but absent, it is possible to refuse to accept it as boring, white, or absent. We can insist on vanilla’s presence and by doing so catalogue the power of its social relations.

Next in the series: The Rise of Silas Lapham & The Stuff of Social Mobility by Aaron Burstein.


[1] Some historical scholarship of starvation and cannibalism follow the absence of food to the extreme. For further reading in this vein see: Rachel B. Herrmann, ed., To Feast on Us as Their Prey: Cannibalism and the Early Modern Atlantic (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2019); Carla Cevasco, “Hunger Knowledges and Cultures in New England’s Borderlands, 1675-1770,” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16, no. 2 (2018): 255–81; Darra Goldstein, “Women under Siege: Leningrad, 1941-1942,” in From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food (University of Massachusetts Press, 2005).

[2]  Anna L. Hawley, “The Meaning of Absence: Household Inventories in Surry County, Virginia, 1690-1715,” in Early American Probate Inventories, ed. Jane Montague Benes and Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University Press, c. 1989), 184; Ann Smart Martin, “The Role of Pewter as Missing Artifact: Consumer Attitudes toward Tablewares in Late 18th Century Virginia,” Historical Archaeology 23, no. 2 (1989): 1–27.

[3] Hawley, 31.

[4] Emily Apter et al., “A Questionnaire on Materialisms,” October, no. 155 (2016): 12,

[5] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 4.

[6] Morgan Meyer, “Placing and Tracing Absence: A Material Culture of the Immaterial,” Journal of Material Culture 17, no. 1 (2012): 103–10; Morgan Meyer and Kate Woodthorpe, “The Material Presence of Absence: A Dialogue between Museums and Cemeteries,” Sociological Research Online 13, no. 5 (2008): 127–35.

[7] Mikkel Bille, Frida Hastrup, and Tim Flohr Sørensen, “Introduction: An Anthropology of Absence,” in An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss, ed. Mikkel Bille, Frida Hastrup, and Tim Flohr Soerensen (New York: Springer, 2010), 4.

[8] Severin Fowles, “People Without Things,” in An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss, ed. Mikkel Bille, Frida Hastrup, and Tim Flohr Soerensen (New York: Springer, 2010), 25.

[9] Elaine Freedgood, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 2,

[10] Emilio Kourí, A Pueblo Divided: Business, Property, and Community in Papantla, Mexico (California: Stanford University Press, 2004), 10,

[11] Sarah Lohman, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, Reprint edition (London: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 38.

[12] Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife: Or, Methodical Cook (Baltimore: Plaskitt, & Cugle, 1838), 143.

[13] Notably vanilla also appears as a present but absent ingredient in Leslie’s second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, also published in 1832. The treatment of vanilla in both these texts is developed at length in my dissertation. Eliza Leslie and Sulpice Barué, Domestic French Cookery (Philadelphia, Carey & Hart, 1836),

[14] For more on Mrs. Goodfellow’s cooking school see Becky Libourel Diamond, Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School (Yardley: Westholme, 2012).

[15] Etta M. Madden, Selections from Eliza Leslie, ed. Etta M. Madden (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011), xvi.

[16] Madden, xxii.

[17] Leslie, Selections from Eliza Leslie, 28.

[18] Megan J Elias, Food on the Page: Cookbooks and American Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 21.

[19] Sarah Walden, Tasteful Domesticity: Women’s Rhetoric & the American Cookbook 1790-1940 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), 45.

[20] Leslie, Selections from Eliza Leslie, 23.

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