Sunday, November 10, 2013

"The Signature of All Things"

While reading Elizabeth Gilbert's recently released novel, "The Signature of All Things", I was reminded of a wonderful  tour of a vanilla (orchid) plantation on the Big Island of Hawaii several years ago.

The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that her recent novel,  “The Signature of All Things", was inspired by a book with maps and botanical illustrations illuminating Captain Cooks's adventures that had been in her family for years. She was especially intrigued with Joseph Banks, Captain Cook's chief botanist, who searched the earth for botanical specimens.

"The Signature of All Things" begins with the journeys of Alma Whittacker’s father Henry, a fictional botanical explorer and entrepreneur who after joining Cook’s voyages in the late 18th century, eventually makes a fortune trading in rare plants used in botanical pharmaceuticals. Alma shares her father's interest in botany, carefully studying mosses (bryology) on the large estate in Philadelphia where her father eventually settled the family. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolutiony theory, she is drawn into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical by Ambrose Pike, a botanical artist who has spent years studying and drawing orchids in Mexico and Guatemala.  When her marriage to Ambrose became unworkable, she sends him to Tahiti to run the family's vanilla plantation. (Ambrose had previously hypothesized that the vanilla may not have been bearing pods because the native plants, insects and birds of Tahiti were not capable of pollinating the vanilla plants from Mexico.  He had suggested hand pollination might be attempted.)  When Alma travels to Tahiti following Ambrose's death, her struggle to survive during a violent ball game prompts her to propose a"theory of competitive alteration".  But because Alma can not reconcile the evolutionary advantages of human altruism and self-sacrifice with competitive alteration, she refuses to publish her theory.  Charles Darwin, one of several scientists who has come to a similar conclusion while studying finches in the Gal├ípagos,  eventually publicizes his theory of natural selection and evolution in the book "On the Origin of Species" in 1859.  

The "signature of all things" was an outdated scientific/mystical theory put forth in the 1600s by Jacob Boehme, who suggested that God had hidden in the design of every plant on Earth a secret code as to that plant's usage. (For example, walnuts are very good for headaches and walnuts are shaped like human brains when you open them up.)  Gilbert suggests that Boehme's outdated theory speaks to the human longing to understand the "signature of all things".  As Alma approaches the end of her life, she says that "I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world.  As such, I have never felt insignificant."

Botanical illustrations
of the vanilla orchid
A couple of years ago, we were introduced to the vanilla orchid when we the Hawaiian Vanilla Co., the first commercial vanilla growers of vanilla in the US, on the Big Island in Hawaii.  We toured shade houses where new baby orchid plants are grown. Since this orchid takes 4 years to flower and the vanilla orchids are pollinated one by one by hand within 12 hours of blooming, it is a slow, labor-intensive process. (The melipona bee, native to Mexico, is the one insect in the world that naturally pollinates the blossom.) If pollination is successful, the flower’s stem transforms over nine months into a single, seed-filled bean pod, which is also harvested by hand. 
The owners, Jim & TracyReddekopp, work with prominent area chefs and well-known, local food companies to incorporate vanilla into their products, thus creating a market for Hawaiian-grown vanilla.  The company offers farm tours, a tea brunch, a “Vanilla Experience” gourmet lunch, and vanilla tastings. Hawaiian Vanilla Company now makes 70 vanilla products that are found in stores on Hawai‘i Island, O‘ahu, and Maui

Baby vanilla orchid plants in shade houses
Vanilla orchid climbing a support plant
Vanilla flowers and pods
One of the memorable dishes served at the "Vanilla Experience" lunch:

HawaiianVanilla Garam Masala Shrimp

2   T. Butter
1/2    Vanilla Bean, Scraped
1/2 t. Garam Masala Spice Rub
1/2 t. Pure Extract
6       Cooked Shrimp, De-Tailed

Start by de-tailing the cooked shrimp if you haven’t done so already. Place the pan on your stove and turn on your burner to medium heat. Then add the butter in. As the butter begins to melt cut your vanilla bean open on a cutting board and scrape vanilla seeds into pan stirring with spatula to mix with butter. Add the Garam Masala Spice Rub, again stirring thoroughly. Finally, add the Vanilla Extract ( be careful as extract does have a tendency to flame up). Stir until all ingredients are blended. Shut flame off and add shrimp. Coat each piece thoroughly.
Thinly slice a Baguette loaf. One slice for each piece of shrimp being served. Brush with oil and toast slices in oven till crispy. Put a dollop of Pineapple  Chutney on each slice. Enjoy!

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