Once upon a time in Mexico, at least 2,000 years ago, the Totonac people near Veracruz began to cultivate the curious, long, dark bean that sprang from the flower of a fragile orchid plant whose long vines climbed up tree trunks. They discovered that the bean, when carefully cured and split, contained a powerful and exotic interior--vanilla.
...Now America consumes more vanilla than any other nation on earth.
"There's something in our palate that likes warm and floral," said Gand, executive pastry chef at Cenitare Restaurants and author of Chocolate and Vanilla (Clarkson-Potter 2006, $22.50).
Gand often calls vanilla the underwear of baking, since it lays an important foundation for the other ingredients.
"I always feel vanilla is a real peacemaker that links flavors together," she said.
If you've been lulled into a sense of vanilla complacency because of substandard imitation vanillin flavoring, now may be the time to up the ante by experimenting with true vanilla.
Also from http://www.pioneerlocal.com/508273,pp-vanilla-081607-s3.article
If you're going to buy real vanilla beans, make sure you get what you're paying for, since the quality and price depend on origin and crop, much like wine.