The vanilla bean is the fruit of a species of orchid native to southeastern Mexico, and it is unusually difficult to cultivate. Like most orchids, it is an epiphyte, meaning that its roots need to be exposed to air, not soil. It climbs the trunks of trees, thriving in limbs a hundred feet aboveground, and unfurls just one flower per day over a two-month period, awaiting pollination by a single species of tiny stingless bee, Melipona beecheii. If the flower is pollinated, a pod develops over the next six to eight months. And although the pods contain thousands of tiny seeds, they are incapable of germinating unless they are in the presence of a particular mycorrhizal fungus.
Justin Schmidt, an entomologist who studies venomous stings, created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to quantify the pain inflicted by ants and other stinging creatures. His surprisingly poetic descriptions give some order to the hierarchy of ant stings as compared to those of bees and wasps: 1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm. 1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch. 1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek. 2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door. 2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on tongue. 2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin. 3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail. 3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut. 4.0 Tarantula hawk: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath. 4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.
Polish pamphlet called The Perfect Distiller and Brewer, published in 1809, described the process of distilling vodka from potatoes, with the warning that it was the worst kind of vodka, behind vodka made from sugar beets, grains, apples, grapes, and acorns. In fact, potatoes only became a common ingredient in Polish vodka because they were cheap and abundant, not because they made a high-quality spirit. They tended to turn into a thick, sticky paste in the fermentation tank, the starch was not easy to convert to sugar, and they produced higher levels of toxic methanol and fusel oils. Russian vodka makers looked down on cheap Polish potato vodkas; to this day, they insist that the best vodka is made from rye or wheat instead.