It’s Valentine’s, all around are edible confections and temptations. No doubt you’ll have noticed the suggestive lollies, extra bottles of bubbly, the luxury food aisles heaving with mouth-watering delicious tidbits. Everyone is cashing in on romance, love, and lust with most palates whet by the offer of something edible, ie an aphrodisiac.
My latest book, Edible Pleasures, is a cultural and culinary romp through the history of aphrodisiacs. It explores the relationship between food and sexual desire; how and why since time immemorial and across cultures this relationship persists. It is a universal practice. All cultures use food to provoke, kindle, stoke, enhance or prolong the ardour between the sexes. Eating together is foreplay to the main event.
It is also big business. A couple of mouse clicks and you can buy any number of ‘miraculous libido-boosting, out of this world sex aids’ including herbs, (illegal or not) such as yohimbe and maca root, poisons (Spanish fly and cantharides) and exotic powders such as crushed Rhino Horn – never mind that the poor beast is near hunted into extinction.
So what is an aphrodisiac? It is a ‘digestible’ which arouses sexual desire. There are four main types. Biochemical Aphrodisiacs have a direct effect on sexual activity because of their properties, vitamins, and minerals, ie food deemed nutritionally good for you. Pharmaceutical Aphrodisiacs are those prescribed in aid of virility, fertility and sexual pleasure, ie viagra. Psycho-physiological Aphrodisiacs refer to foods visually resembling genitalia, ie the phallic banana or the ‘vulva’ oyster. Finally, those foods deemed to be aphrodisiac by implicit association, stemming from the belief that ingesting vital organs of other animals one can imbibe vigour or vitally, ie tiger testes, snake’s blood, and bull’s balls. Horse penis was very popular meat in Medieval times – cut off in full erection it was served in a cream sauce.
This relationship between food and sex spills into all aspects of culture from high- to low-brow; fine art to food-porn, memorable meals in literature, cinematic feasts and even music. Fifty Cent would love you to visit the candy shop and Kelis’s milkshakes bring all the boys to the yard. It is embedded in our language. We ‘hunger’ for love, ‘devour’ one another, our lust ‘insatiable’. We refer to women as sweetheart, honey or tart. As for him indoors, he’s your beefcake or sugar daddy. Is your love the apple of your eye? How sweet married life begins with a honeymoon? And should you be lucky, you may return with a bun in the oven.
I recently gave a talk on this subject at a hotel in London. I’d been chatting to a young woman and her fiancé explaining how the root of the relationship between food and desire is to be found in reproduction. Food is the essence of life, our fuel. The earth gives birth to food, an idea Diane Ackerman expresses in her book, A Natural History of the Senses, “when we eat an apple or peach we are eating the fruit’s placenta”. She cites evidence of ritual intercourse around harvest time in early rural societies, the earth literally being sprinkled with semen and human secretions. Bodily fluids were regarded as having life-giving power and are commonly found in aphrodisiacs. In 16th-century England, the habit of some courtesans was to saturate peeled apples with their sweat by keeping a piece tucked under their arm. They would then give these scent tokens to their sweetheart. So ladies, if short of cash this Valentine’s, you know what to do with your Granny Smith!
“Few know,” I said, looking at the young bride-to-be, “that the rice thrown at newlyweds symbolises semen. We are literally anointing the couple.” This particular nugget of info didn’t impress. Colour drained from the woman’s face. I hadn’t realised how squeamish some people can be. It reminded me of the warning given to ladies in the 18th century regarding another aphrodisiac, the basking geoduck clam – if you haven’t seen it, it is quite something. (You have been warned).
To eat is a most intimate act involving all the senses, touch, taste, sight, sound and smell – the latter being the most sexual of senses. Amorous desire begins in the nose due to pheromones. The smell of food is if not erotic then highly charged. In France, the intimate aromas a woman exudes is called her cassolette. Women, as it happens, have a much stronger sense of smell than men. They rely on their nose to attract a mate with opposite immune system proteins to their own ensuring the strongest possible biological pairing and optimum genetic makeup.
It will come as no surprise that the genders have different uses for aphrodisiacs. For men, it is about potency, virility, stiffness, and size. In Art of the Bedchamber (a book from the Chinese Ming dynasty), the following recipe appears: “Find a white dog born in the first moon of the year. Use the secretion of its liver to mix the powder into a paste, apply to your jade stem (penis) three times. At dawn, the following day, draw some fresh water from the well and wash it off. Your jade stem will definitely grow three inches longer.”
Women, on the other hand, were more concerned with fecundity. They also used aphrodisiacs to entice, entrap and as portents to keep their males from wandering. A Brazilian custom exists where in order to attain the object of their desire, women offer them a coffee made by straining the liquid through their dirty underclothing.
In fact, women were responsible for introducing many dishes to the aphrodisiac repertoire. Courtesans had to maintain their patrons’ attention and did so by inventing recipes. Madame Pompadour had her Asparagus Tips, Mademoiselle Mars, a theatre diva, offered an almond soup capable of restoring flagging spirits. If not inventing dishes women inspired dishes – I’m thinking of the ballerina Anna Pavlova.
Some women were the main course. During my research I came across an 18th-century best-seller entitled Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, detailing the names and specialties of London’s prostitutes.
Of course, one man’s pleasure is another’s poison. What is most fascinating is the range and scope of aphrodisiacs spanning the humdrum, (the basic essentials of milk, bread, honey, and eggs) to the downright disgusting, (excrement, poisons, cannibalism).
Lastly, the one question always asked is, do they work? Yes, undoubtedly. However, the caveat being there is no stronger aphrodisiacal stimulant than the desire provoked by one’s own mind; man’s foremost erogenous zone.
‘Edible Pleasures, A Textbook of Aphrodisiacs’, by Lana Citron is published by Eyewear Publishing at €12.49
My top 5 aphrodisiacs
Alcohol Physiologically a relaxant it causes blood to engorge the genitals and liberate existing or dormant desires. But overindulgence can cause impotence. Shakespeare concurs: “Lechery Sir it provokes and unprovokes, it provokes the desire but it takes away the performance.”
Á la Casanova shared tongue to tongue.
Bubble bursts of sensuous saltiness.
Black diamonds of the table.
Included in my book is a most entertaining recipe from Toulouse Lautrec for these sweet fritters.
Who can deny the simple deliciousness of bread and butter, be it a phallic baguette or the double win of a batch-heel?
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