While contemplating food in relation to sex, I got to thinking about culinary sadomasochism. Why is it that when it comes to Valentine's Day, anniversaries, whatever, we're always feeding our main squeeze chocolates or strawberries? Are we trying to bribe them or something? Sweeten them up?
A lot of us stay in, or came to, New Mexico, in part, for the spice. We don't want our palette coddled, we want a challenge. Maybe even a little torture too. Why not transfer that desire into the realm of the rest of the sensual body?
Since I've come to Santa Fe, I've heard just about every physical or spiritual benefit attributed to chile. But besides contributing to longevity or cosmic balance, I'd heard whispers and wondered if it might not be an aphrodisiac heavyweight, too.
For answers, I first turned to Dave Dewitt, president of Fiery Foods, based in Albuquerque. Dewitt is considered an expert in chile worldwide, known sometimes as the "Pope of Peppers." If chile had anything intrinsically sexy, the Pope would know.
The conversation went a little like this:
"Are Southwestern chiles aphrodisiacs?"
"Would you say that they have any aphrodisiac qualities at all?"
"Well, OK, then why do people say they do?"
Dave breaks it down: "Since [the chile pepper] resembles the male organ, people make the quantum leap of calling it an aphrodisiac. My Dictionary of Aphrodisiacs says that peppers are rumored to have these kinds of qualities but, really, there's really no folk evidence that they do. Black peppers are mentioned in the Kama Sutra, but chile peppers are not, for example. Of course the Kama Sutra was written before chile peppers got to India…"
The expert is a skeptic. So I thought I might try an artist or two. That is, a couple of chefs.
Rocky Durham, a chef-instructor at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, and syndicated writer of the food column "Plates Across the States," had his reservations, but could see a connection. Though he felt it might be an acquired eroticism.
"I think people who might not be as experienced in consuming chile…I don't think they would find it necessarily to be a turn-on. It might kind of panic them. But I guess there are connections that could be drawn between not being familiar with sex and panic."
But, there are some scientific factors that suggest eating chile can get your blood pumping-in that way. "The oil in chile, capsaicin, is really good for circulation. So a lot of connections could be drawn between arousal and chile consumption," Durham says.
A little browsing on the Internet confirmed the arousing qualities of capsaicin oil. Stimulating your nerve endings, the oil makes your brain "think" you're in pain, so the brain responds with endorphins, like morphine. The result is euphoria which, like sex, can be a little addictive.
Mark Kiffin, chef and owner of the Compound Restaurant, formerly of Coyote Café and 2004 nominee for the James Beard Best Chef: Southwest award, is a big advocate of the love-chile connection as well.
"I think chiles are exceptionally sensual-because they're hot and spicy. It gets your tongue tingling, you get excited, your heart rate goes up and the taste and flavors can linger," he says. "They'll certainly get you sweating."
What about the pleasurable-pain aspect? Could chiles be considered sensual in a sadomasochistic way?
"We have a saying here over at the cooking school," Durham says. "Be careful how you handle lovers after handling chiles."
The oil in chiles can transfer to the skin in the fingers, and chile-saturated fingers on genitalia can be, ah, incredibly painful. Of course that can be a plus if you're looking to, say, punish someone for being naughty. But that's a fine line, explains Dewitt, "Chiles have been a form of punishment going back to the Maya, who would put chile juice in the eyes of women who were looking at men; who would apply chile to sensitive body parts; who would punish their children by holding them over burning chiles. And that gets right into the hot-saucing thing of today, where some people say 'instead of the wash your mouth out with soap thing…'"
Eating chile may still be the safest bet for exploring the spicy pleasure/pain line. "It's like being warm. We like the sensation of being warm." Durham says. "If we walk into a warm room, it's relaxing. And there gets to be a point where the warmth becomes hot. And then the hot can become a burn. So is it just like an intense, pleasurable experience? Or you know, pleasure that's been taken to the nth degree?" Even Dewitt admits in the end, "It certainly works for some people."
Whatever your thing is, according to Kiffin, it's ultimately about compatibility: "Chiles and sex are on the same level because you know when it's working. It's an immediate gratification; you know if somebody likes it," he says. "You look into their eyes across the table, and you know when it's working."
Practical Aphrodisiac: A chile-laced Valentine meal
by Rocky Durham
The original version of this dish was made with Panalirous Argus, the Caribbean, spiny rock lobster. As fresh lobster is key to this recipe, Americanus, Maine lobster, has been substituted for ease of acquisition.
LOBSTER AND RED CHILE POT PIE
For the filling:
The meat of one large lobster (tail and claw) (cooked and diced)
1 large Russet potato, peeled and diced
4 ribs celery 1 large onion, diced
1 cup, fresh corn kernels
2 tablespoons, AP flour
2½ tablespoons butter
1½ teaspoons Chimayo-style red chile powder
3 to 3½ cups lobster stock or chicken broth, hot
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste
Sauté onions, celery, in butter for two to three minutes. Add flour and chile powder and sauté for an additional three minutes stirring frequently. Add stock and stir to remove any lumps of flour. Add corn, potatoes and season.
Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until potatoes are tender and stock is thickened. Add lobster and thyme and remove from heat. Allow mixture to cool for 15 to 20 minutes before assembling the pie.
For the pastry:
2½ cups AP flour
1 stick butter, cold
1½ teaspoons salt
1 to 1½ cups ice-cold water
Combine flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Using the coarse side of a cheese grater, grate the cold butter into the flour mixture. Gently stir together the butter and flour to just combine. Add the ice-cold water and knead together until a smooth ball of dough is achieved. Do not overmix!
For easier rolling, refrigerate dough, covered for half an hour before rolling.
To configure the pie:
Divide dough into two equal pieces. Roll each piece out to approximately 1/8 of an inch in thickness. Line a pie dish with one sheet allowing the excess to drape over the sides. Fill pie with lobster filling. If filling looks too thin, drain off excess liquid. Brush edges of the pastry with beaten egg and place top crust on pie. Trim off excess pastry with sharp knife and poke a few steam vents in top crust. If you want to make a crimped or fluted decorative edge now is the time. Brush entire top with beaten egg.
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or until top is golden brown. Allow pie to cool a few minutes before slicing. Light candles, pop open Champagne and enjoy!