Actually the food of love is food

Aphrodite, Goddess of LoveBY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE

If you have ever been around domesticated birds, or really closely watched wild birds, you may know that one of the most common mating rituals across many species is feeding the prospective mate. I don’t know if many other animals do this, except of course for humans. And we do take our cues from the birds and the bees, after all. Scientists speculate that it’s linked to advertising one’s suitability as a future parent, being a good provider of exquisite foodstuffs, cooking fine dishes in the case of humans (or choosing fine restaurants) and regurgitating delicious seeds in the case of parrots.
We humans have used food as a sexual come-on, a love-enhancing art form, and a potency pick-me-up for as long as history or anthropology can fathom. A very early literary work about love, preserved in the KJV Bible in Jacobean prose, is the Song of Solomon. This passionate verse is replete with images of feasting, feeding the loved one, and comparisons of the beloved’s body to edible delicacies. The term “aphrodisiac” is derived from Aphrodite, the Greek name of the goddess of love, who equates to Venus in the Roman pantheon. And “Aphrodite,” in turn, is derived from the Greek for “foam born.” Meaning sea foam, which is why she is often portrayed rising from the briny deep in an improbably large bivalve shell.
Which brings us straight to the first “class” of aphrodisiacs, of which bivalves such as oysters are a prime example. There are three main reasons why a particular food is claimed by someone to be an aphrodisiac. The first, and probably oldest, is because it resembles genitalia or some other sexualized body part. The second is because of an alluring smell or taste, or a rareness that is associated with exoticism or forbidden pleasures, that makes one think sexy thoughts. The third, and probably most recent, would arise through experimentation and be due to some inherent nutritious aspect of the food-supplying nutrients or even hormone precursors that enhance either potency, stamina or fertility. And often, foods in the first or second category just happen to fulfill the third as well.
So getting back to that bivalve. Oysters are probably the first or second thing that springs to mind if someone asks you to name an aphrodisiac. Oysters, in texture if not strictly in appearance, are thought to resemble female private parts. And then it turns out that oysters do provide several nutrients, notably zinc, linked to stamina, health and sexual potency. So strong has the association between oysters and sex been in European history that oyster bars often doubled as brothels in Georgian England, the Mediterranean and early Anglo-America. A number of fruits and vegetables are what we call “pointy-pokey things” (a technical term) and have all in their turn been considered a food of love—asparagus, zucchini, celery, bananas and even the quotidian carrot.
Quick—how is an orchid like an avocado? Both have been thought to remind someone of testicles, and were named accordingly. Orchid derives from the Greek for testicle, while avocado derives from a Spanish corruption of the Nahuatl word “ahuacatl,” which means testicle. Avocados are still thought by some to be an aphrodisiac, as they fulfill the requirements of all three classes, and Pliny the Elder recommended orchid tubers as an aphrodisiac food (but alas they never caught on). Although the tubers of orchids look like testicles, the flowers are more suggestive of female genitalia. One particular orchid with an interesting aphrodisian history is vanilla planifolia, native to Central America. The filthy-minded conquistadors were quite taken with the shape of its luscious tubular flowers, which they named vanilla, after a Latin term for “sheath,” as in a condom.
dessert1-800x445Vanilla processing as a flavoring agent was eventually brought to Europe and was one of many new American foods that were all the rage in the courts. In fact, even the pedestrian potato was considered an aphrodisiac in Tudor times, as witnessed by a rant from Falstaff (surely an expert on the subject!) in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”: “Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of ‘Green Sleeves’; hail kissing-comfits and snow eryngoes.”As foods from outside Europe became cheaper and more common there, they lost their exoticism factor and were no longer considered aphrodisiacs. This was the fate of rice, cinnamon, pepper and cloves, as well as potatoes. But, it’s not only Europeans who have had the lore of foods that make one randier or at least more competent in the act.
Asia, Africa and the pre-conquest Americas all had branches of medicine that prescribed certain foods for potency, fertility or stamina associated with sex. Coffee originated in Africa, probably in present-day Ethiopia. It’s one of the original natural stimulants, so of course it was a boon for lovemaking. We now know that caffeine also enhances the levels of dopamine, so the Africans were definitely on to something there. The yohimbe tree is a relative of the coffea tree, and its bark is probably the most well-known of African aphrodisiacs. It’s even used today to treat erectile dysfunction, being safer and cheaper than Viagra. (It’s also used in veterinary medicine to bring an anesthetized animal back to consciousness. Yes, there is probably a joke there somewhere.) In the Indian subcontinent of Asia, where sex and food and health are an integral part of the Hindu religion, the mixing of customized curry spices was often done with an eye to their sexual heat as well as their hot tastes. Maybe the embedded wisdom in these recipes is the reason that modern Indians and curry lovers the world over consider a hot curry to be an optimal prelude to a hot date.
However, I think Central and South America may win this close-fought “heat” for the sexiest foods thought to enhance sex. One word only—chocolate—still linked fast with the idea of Valentine’s Day, still a prerequisite for any kind of decent modern courtship. Chocolate traveled a long way from the days when the baffled conquistadors watched breathless maidens serve Montezuma a cup of this unsweetened, spicy, muddy concoction that was meant to give him almost magical powers over whichever of his servers he chose to spend the evening with. The Spaniards could not see what the big deal was, and chocolate did not attract the buzz of Europe until sweetness was added to it. But then, oh boy, did it catch on.
oyster8Montezuma was a latecomer to the connoisseurship of drinking chocolate. (For some reason the Mesoamericans never made candy or snacks from chocolate, only drinks.)  The Aztecs, who gave us the Nahuatl words for both cacao and chocolate, via Spanish, were not able to cultivate cacao themselves, but instead demanded a “tribute” of harvested cocoa beans from other nations they had conquered. Before them, the Mayans, at the height of their civilization and having a written language, recorded that cacao was an aphrodisiac and a powerful medicine, a gift from the gods. And before them, the Olmec, the oldest known civilization in the area, left anthropological evidence of growing, fermenting and drinking chocolate. Almost 3,000 years later, the Spanish stole chocolate from the Aztecs and brought it to Europe, the Dutch invented a cocoa-making process, the Swiss jumped in with their techniques, and chocolate ended up being degraded to a fatty, sweet thing that toddlers smeared on their faces. But lately, the original dark, spicy, bittersweet, decidedly sexy and adult nature of chocolate has come back to fashion. Just one word of warning: If you are procuring chocolate for your Valentine this year, make sure it’s fair trade. It is estimated that nearly 90% of the chocolate in the general market is produced by slave labor, and really, there is nothing sexy about that.

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