On food and love

Posted by on Feb 13, 2012 | 0 comments

In the 1920s, an advertising campaign of the struggling U.S. avocado industry proclaimed indignantly, “There is absolutely NO conclusive evidence that avocados are an aphrodisiac!” Sales skyrocketed. Obviously we don’t need evidence to feed the human love affair with aphrodisiacs.

Admittedly, the U.S. avocado industry didn’t invent that tale entirely: the Aztecs had said the same thing five centuries before. The Nahuatl term for the avocado tree, on which the fruits dangle in suggestive pairs, is the “ahuacahuatl,” or testicle tree. Aztec custom went so far as to forbid maidens from setting foot outside their doorstep during avocado-gathering season.

The medieval Doctrine of Signatures, once the primary philosophy underlying the understanding of aphrodisiacs, states that an object’s form mirrors its effect. The most obvious example (beyond the ahuacahuatl) is asparagus. A mere glance suggests that something’s up with this plant. It was commonly prescribed in the Middle Ages for sexual infirmity as well as for heart disease. It’s laden with iron, which enriches the blood and so, perhaps, makes it course a little heavier through our hearts–or, maybe, makes us more magnetically attracted to others.

The French have long been great appreciators of asparagus, and couples traditionally would dine on three courses the night before their wedding. History doesn’t record whether the Encyclopedist Bernard de Fontanelle needed asparagus for purposes of passion, but we do know he adored it. One afternoon the AbbĂ© Terrasson invited himself to dinner, causing much grumbling on Fontanelle’s part, because he would have to share half his asparagus. Just before dinner, de Fontanelle ordered his cook to prepare asparagus with his usual oil dressing, while the abbot asked for a white sauce. Minutes later, the elderly and infirm abbot collapsed and fell to the floor. Without a pause, de Fontanelle ran into the kitchen shouting, “All the asparagus with oil!”

I once dined on shark-fin soup as a child, ignorant about the dangers; our Chinese-American hostess didn’t tell us that shark fin is among the more potent of sea-borne aphrodisiacs. (I didn’t notice any spectacular side effects, but then again, I was only eleven.) The fins are expensive and thus very profitable for fishermen around the world, who dry their fins in the sun to sell to the Chinese market–valuable enough that forty million sharks are caught and killed every year for their fins alone, with the rest of the carcass often thrown back into the sea. I can only assume that the active ingredient in shark fin soup is its high cost, money being the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Less-expensive seafoods like mussels and shrimp can also be stimulating, and we all know about the power of the oyster; the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite was born of sea foam and then lifted above the waves on an oyster shell. I personally love the oyster and will always choose them over shark fins–they clean polluted water, reproduce quickly, and can be farmed and harvested without destroying the sea floor. Sustainability is sexy.

The substances themselves may not be as important as the way they’re prepared and presented, however. For instance, pine nuts were considered a powerful amorous aid for centuries, and I’ve personally consumed them for years in pesto and never noticed an effect. Apparently I need to tweak my recipe. Aphrodisiacs, like most good foodstuffs, should always be used in the freshest state possible and used in dishes that are light in texture but elegant in presentation. Candlelight increases their potency, as do flowers, romantic music, and expensive champagne. Once again, I suspect that the money you spend on the meal may play an important role in inspiring love.

The aphrodisiac with which I have had the most experience is possibly the best-researched and most “official” of them all: chocolate. The flavor of good chocolate may cause your head to spin, and it may melt in your hands faster than the cold heart of a reluctant lover, but there’s more to it as well: chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a substance that is produced naturally by the brain when we fall in love. Admittedly, I’m not sure it’s done more for me than make me fall in love with chocolate.

As far as I can tell, love is at least as subjective as taste, regardless of any complex chemicals and scientific research. There is no proven potion of love. There is also no conclusive evidence–none whatsoever–to suggest that reading this blog is an aphrodisiac.

In honor of Valentine’s Day this year, I’m adding another favorite cookbook book to our required reading listInterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook. All its recipes are designed for two; they’re well researched and delicious, and lovers cooking together will be titillated by the book’s beautiful and provocative photography.

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