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On mass-marketed ice cream, "Herotica" novels, coach-speak and lazy writers

Note to my boss: Don't let any of our writers use the term "vanilla" in reference to the Redskins tonight. Just don't.

Here's why. The sporting world has absolutely lost its mind over the use of the word "vanilla," in headlines and in quotes, in analysis and in conjunction with lame references to other flavors and various other dessert terms. (Actual lede: If San Diego State head coach Chuck Long had ordered ice cream at SDSU's Family Day scrimmage on Aug. 19, it probably would have been plain vanilla. No sprinkles, no cherry on top. Probably in a cup, just to be safe.") Nexis produced 300 references of the words "vanilla" and "offense" in the same story over the past 90 days. Over those same 90 days a year ago, there were only 195 such references.

Here's what's been "vanilla" in the media since Sept. 1: Tampa Bay's preseason offense, the Rams' preseason offense, the Skins' preseason offense, the Browns' preseason offense, the Packers' preseason offense, the Falcons' preseason offense, the Jets' preseason offense, Maryland's offense, Nebraska's offense, Ohio State's offense, Texas's offense, Florida's offense, Oklahoma's offense, Michigan's offense, the Australian women's basketball team's offense, the East Dubuque (Ill.) girls' volleyball team's offense, the Rams' defense, the Chiefs' defense, Nebraska's defense, the 2005 Falcons' defense, the Patriots' preseason defense, preseason defenses in general, and the 1967 N.C. State defense. Plus, we've heard about "vanilla" in quotes from Auburn QB Brandon Cox, Georgia QB Joe Tereshinski, Mark Mangino, Mike McCarthy, Herm Edwards, Ralph Friedgen, Les Miles, Tommy Tuberville, Marshall Coach Mark Snyder, Purdue D coordinator Brock Spack, Northwest (N.C.) Coach Mike Helms, and Redskins Maybe Backup QB Todd Collins. ("Vanilla plays from vanilla formations," twice in one sentence, well done Todd.)

So, is this an appropriate usage of the term?

"If you're talking about mass-market lowest-common-denominator stuff, then it kind of makes sense, but if you've studied ice cream and you make ice cream, vanilla is hardly bland," said Susan Soorenko, owner and head ice cream maker at Moorenko's. "It is subtle, nuanced, sophisticated, clean and expensive."

"It's really quite a complicated and exotic and very tasteful flavor," agreed Glenn Roberts, executive director of the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. "I know people who have spent their whole lives studying vanilla."

"Of course, the irony of all of this is that vanilla is one of the most unplain, most complex flavors in the world," said Patricia Rain, who has spent her whole life studying vanilla. (Well, a lot of it, anyhow.) "I just laugh at it and keep working toward getting people aware of why vanilla isn't plain."

After writing the definitive text on artichokes, Rain--who calls herself the Vanilla Queen and has her own blog--started focusing on vanilla in 1985, shortly after the first football-vanilla reference I could find. (AP, Aug. 12, 1984: The Houston Oilers used a plain vanilla defense and early fireworks from quarterback Warren Moon to defeat the New York Jets 36-17 for their first National Football League exhibition game win since 1982.)

Rain, the author of "Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Favorite Flavor and Fragrance," traces vanilla's "bland" connotation to World War II-era Silicon Valley, where it was used to describe generic types of electronic parts. Later, it became a common adjective for basic clothing outfits before crossing over into mass usage as "bland."

Something else Gregg Williams or Ralph Friedgen might want to consider before they go vanilla again; the Vanilla Queen told me that vanilla fares quite well in tests that measure how older men "react" to aromas in a sexual sense, if you know what I mean. According to the queen, one series of tests showed that younger men favored pumpkin pie spice and buttermilk donut aromas, "but older men universally were turned on by vanilla." I have no idea if she was putting me on. But she has written some "Herotica" novels, so I'm gonna trust her on this one. (Note to editor: This is what you wanted when you created the sports blog, right?)

In conclusion? "I've never really looked at it in terms of what I do, but yes, now that you mention it I'm completely offended," Soorenko said. "Tell them to pick another flavor. Call it cookie dough. I think cookie dough is the most boring flavor in the world."

So Redskins writers, I beg of you, head to the locker room tonight with questions about whether the Al Saunders offense has finally shed its cookie dough image.

By Dan Steinberg  |  September 11, 2006; 2:59 PM ET
Categories:  Redskins  
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Moorenko's rocks -- especially a scoop of bittersweet chocolate alongside a scoop of cinnamon. Maybe there's give-away potential here?

I have to ask though... isn't the cookie dough in cookie dough ice cream floating in a bed of vanilla?

Posted by: SSFSCoWA | September 11, 2006 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for asking for my opinion! It was fun to read about my ice cream in a different context! And, yeah, cookie dough ice cream is essentially cookie dough bits floating in a bed of vanilla (we put other stuff in too), but my point is that the cookie dough bits can effectively mask the quality of the ice cream, and everybody makes it, therefore, everyone has to make it...oh...wait...sports blog. Sorry.

Posted by: Susan Soorenko | September 11, 2006 8:30 PM | Report abuse

what about if it was shortened to 'nilla? perhaps that could evoke a childlike mispronunciation, thereby playing up the unsophisticated nature of whatever was being described. or would that violate some sort of Nabisco copyright?

Posted by: jamie | September 12, 2006 1:06 AM | Report abuse

I'd have to say this is one sports blog that can sustain a discussion on ice cream (or cheese, or craft beer, or whatever). That said, I'd be curious to know if there are other forms of cookie dough (i.e. not chocolate chip) that might actually enhance the ice cream experience... what about a ginger bread dough in a honeyed ice cream? (and leave the vanilla alone so we can appreciate its subtleties?)

Posted by: SSFSCoWA | September 12, 2006 9:55 PM | Report abuse

Ah ah, got you, finally! Why on Earth the Vanilla Queen (I am already dreaming of a Final Chapter in a DC-Marvel-multiple universes-all-time-saga: "The Cheese Mistress vs. the Vanilla Queen", and you know where 'I will take my stand') should have written "Herotica" novels, when the rest of the foxy ladies are writing (or performing) "Erotica" stuff? Maybe these are about sexually excited heroes? Like the old stuff about Hercules and Omphales?

Posted by: piero | September 30, 2006 8:12 AM | Report abuse

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