“The sight of her face…together with the maddening fragrance of food, evoked an emotion of wild tenderness and hunger in him which was unutterable.”
—Thomas Wolfe, “April, Late April”
I’m in Tallinn, Estonia, having just finished dinner at a restaurant specializing in garlic. While we were eating, I recalled others’ tales of full-body alioli massages and an anecdote from a book by former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, about an all-garlic extravaganza she once attended.
Most people we know would avoid going anywhere near raw garlic if they had hopes of getting any, but not us swarthy Mediterraneans. Did you know that garlic is yet another purported aphrodisiac? Naturally, it was the Greeks and Egyptians who embraced garlic’s ostensible attraction for hanky panky, whereas Tibetan monks were forbidden from entering the monasteries had they consumed garlic because of its reputation for awakening the passions.
Yes, it’s that time of year: Love & Sex. It should be easy to write about food within that context, but here I am, struggling with it. On the one hand, it’s like writing about pregnancy cravings in that nobody’s are like anyone else’s, yet few people have anything interesting to report. On the other hand, the world’s best-selling sex manual, The Joy of Sex, was named after a cookbook. Food and sex: two big things that usher in a lot of complicated feelings for people. What do I know? To each her own bag of gummi bears, novelty items and frozen dinners. I will try not to say anything mean about those ubiquitous chocolate-covered strawberries, despite finding their popularity perplexing and their laconic symbolism suggestive of not much more than bad taste.
Today I walked past an advertisement for a play called Homefucking is Killing Prostitution. It made me think of Valentine’s Day, which looms ominously ahead. What if home cooking began “killing” the restaurant business? Our local restaurants need all the help they can get, but Feb. 14 is probably the worst night of the year for a lot of restaurant staff and not much better for patrons. Will you stay home? A meal prepared and enjoyed at home leaves a lot more space, freedom and comfort—plus one can control the lighting and music before falling into bed. What more could you want?
So I sit thinking about lust, longing and appetite, trying to find a topic that won’t make me sound like a celibate Victorian who looks upon St. Valentine with disdain. I’m fixated on the Placebo Effect, on the importance of being receptive to new ideas and information. It’s been well-established by now (by biochemistry, consumer testimony and the FDA) that there’s no such thing as a true aphrodisiac. The list of debunked myths carry on: gris-gris bags, emu eggshell capsules, horny goat weed, testosterone cream, Cialis with the lady’s morning Earl Grey tea. Many foods have long been considered libidinous for resembling sex organs: bananas, asparagus, carrots, avocados, cucumbers, parsnips, artichokes, potatoes, mangoes, pomegranates, peaches, strawberries, guavas, passion fruit, persimmons, dates, figs, pine nuts, coconuts, chestnuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios. The baklava stands in Turkey sell something called “Turkish Viagra,” a butter-drenched pastry brimming with pistachios. Then there are herbs, spices and aromatics, fruit and vegetable juices, yohimbe, tribulus and maca.
On the subject of truffles, Tamasin Day-Lewis writes of their “raw earthy flesh, which then releases its priapic scent and almost overwhelmingly sexy taste.” As for alcohol, Billy Shakespeare said it all: “It provokes the desire, but takes away the performance.”
Perhaps you’ll find little of what you need for romance in the produce section, but so what? According to Dr. Ruth, the best aphrodisiac to serve your partner is respect. Turn to a balanced diet with lots of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, others recommend. “Steaks and a comedy,” an American friend suggests. “Make her laugh. Make her come. Make her dinner.”
Legend has it that Casanova would often eat 50 raw oysters for breakfast. Sure, they’re high in zinc (especially when wild and cooked over moist heat), which helps out sperm production. Then again, so is braised calf’s liver and most prepared cereals, and you don’t often hear of a couple of lovebirds making googly eyes across a table full of offal and raisin bran. I used to love oysters until the day the ambulance arrived to carry me off into the sunset, curled into a rigid ball and covered in hives. From then on, oysters no longer held the key to my heart, but I had everything I wanted: your hand in mine and an almond croissant, as I explained to the doctor that I’d eaten 50 Kumamoto oysters in under four minutes, and he looked at me like I was either dim, greedy or both.
Billy Joel said, “There’s nothing better than good sex. But bad sex? A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is better than bad sex,” and I feel the same about egregious references to sex in food writing. I once saw a reference somewhere to a dish that made the writer “salivate from every orifice,” a repugnant phrase that inexplicably conjured the saddest image of the writer, whom I pictured as a blander, blonder Bridget Jones, standing at home, aperitif of diet soda pop and vodka in hand, dusty “crystal” tchotchkes and scented tea lights on every surface and a wall of books with titles like How to Love Yourself Minus A Man, Help! My Biological Clock is Burning and 1,001 Recipes for Grand Marnier. Also, may I just say that I hate the phrase “food porn”? Make the observation and allude to it; you don’t have to spell it all out.
Food and sex. I’m reminded that neither must be extraordinary to be enjoyable. “It could be argued,” wrote a friend, “that the everyday good experience delineates and defines the extra-special. But mediocrity is tedious and there is no excuse for no effort.”
“Here’s the thing,” my friend continued. “The very first real food I ever tasted came straight from a beautiful, soft, warm nipple, thus delivering food and sex in one package.”
This I know is true: The best food is made with love.
Happy Lovebirds’ Day or whatever.