Vegans, vanilla and beaver's bottoms.

The other day I made an incredible scientific discovery about beavers and their bottoms.

I don’t want to take credit for the actual science, or give the impression that it was I who first made this discovery for the greater good of humanity. I just mean that it was a discovery for me. The science already existed. All I did was find out about it and uttered the word ‘Wow!’ 

I found out how they make vanilla extract. Yes. Vanilla extract. A thing that I'd never given more than a second or two thought. Like most people in the world, I had simply assumed that vanilla extract was made of, well, vanilla.

How wrong I was! 

There I was, having a casual conversation with my friend Kristoffer.  We were talking about the grey areas of veganism, as I chowed down on a Texas Classic Burger with extra cheese and he nibbled on his so called Texas Vegan Burger. It wasn't just his choice of burger; I had always assumed he was a vegan because he used to live in Malmö. 

The usual questions: Can you eat honey? As bees have slaved away to produce it;  Or tomatoes? The seeds of which need to pass through the gut of an animal in order to germinate; Or sausages? When a nice plate of bangers and mash with gravy is so hard to resist.

It turns out that there were not only simple answers to all these questions, but that my friend Kristoffer was not actually a vegan after all, so he’d never really had to take on these moral dilemmas. 

I told him about the time, as a student, we’d found ourselves, ravenously hungry on the high street at Cheddar Gorge in the company of a vegan classmate, Tom. Every shop was basically a cheese shop aimed at tourists and sold infinite variations of ‘A nice bit of Cheddar’. While the rest of us gorged (geddit?) ourselves on free samples of prime cheddar, Tom was becoming increasingly irritable. ‘Just eat the crackers’ we told him between mouthfuls. It turns out that to a vegan, the old Jacob’s Cream Crackers were even worse as they contained animal fat.

While reluctant to harm an animal, a hungry, irritable vegan Tom, posed a very real danger to humans. The only way to defend ourselves was by waving cheese at him. 

Kristoffer wasn’t impressed by my 'vegan goes for blood' story. He could beat it. He leant in and asked me if I knew about vanilla extract.

Vanilla extract, it transpires,  is not actually made from vanilla. The vanilla flavour comes instead from a scent gland found near the anus of the humble beaver. So if you are a vegan, the old vanilla extract is very much off limits.

This of course raises all sorts of questions. Who first discovered this? Did someone casually lift the tail of a beaver and give the bum a good old sniff? And who are these people?  An article from The National Geographic goes some way to answering that, with the following quote:

“I lift up the animal’s tail,” said Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University, “and I’m like, ‘Get down there, and stick your nose near its bum.’” 

Vanilla. Beavers. Bottoms. My world had been turned upside down. 

When you find out something new like this you have to tell people. That night I gathered my family around the dinner table. There were questions, but I had all the answers. I even threw in the Latin word, castoreum, for the vanilla flavoured substance produced by the beaver's bum.  We imagined a chef who had run out of vanilla lifting the tail of a beaver and giving a good old sniff, then giving his kitchen the thumbs up to let them know vanilla ice cream was back on the menu. We all giggled the giggles of non vegans, laughing at the expense of the poor beaver. 

Then things took a turn. My thirteen year old son, still innocent to many of the wicked ways of the world, but with his very own curious and cynical mind, doubted my story.

'Google it!’ I shouted at him, triumphantly ‘Google it!’.

He grabbed his phone and, still smiling, started googling. I waited for the moment that I would be proven right, ready to dab, floss and do all the other dances from Fortnite in his face

Instead, I watched in horror as his happy expression turned to shock and miscomprehension.  He had turned red.

'I googled it, Dad. I just googled it… ‘ His eyes were fixed on the images on the screen, horrified. 

'What did you put into Google?' I asked 

'I googled what you said’ 

‘What did you write?’ 

‘Beavers and Anal… Beavers and Anal’ 

There were many more questions to answer that evening. Many more questions.


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