The Christian feast of Saint Valentine, February 14, was first associated with romance in the Middle Ages – possibly because it was near the official start of spring and the beginning of the birds’ mating season — and by the mid-1800s, it had begun evolving into the big business of chocolates, candies, and candle-lit dinners we know today. But the idea that certain culinary delicacies are conducive to love dates back far earlier, to the ancient Greeks — although their criteria for aphrodisiac food was either its physical appearance, a powerful odor, or some symbolic, philosophical property.
The goddess of love Aphrodite (the Roman Venus), had emerged from the sea, so Greek thinkers reasoned that erotic potions should be concocted from seafood; even in the 18th century, it was believed that the Lenten diet of fish made people more lecherous. The oyster was considered especially arousing because of its vulva-esque appearance, while phallic-looking gourds were, not surprisingly, significant. Eggs of all kinds were thought by association to promote potency and fertility. Sparrows were seen to mate madly for hours on end, so were devoured by the dozen, as were the “lascivious” mullets.
From the earliest times, it was believed that consuming sexual fluids in meals would create a magical bond between lovers. Greek women would bake their secretions into honey cakes for the men they admired. The Roman scientist Pliny the Elder argued that excrement was also a powerful aphrodisiac and should be slipped into meals, a recommendation that continued throughout the Renaissance: In 1552, Nostradamus included “oil of faeces” as an ingredient for a love potion. (The Romans had no shortage of odd tips: A graffito found in the baths of Pompeii suggests rubbing a tick taken from a dead dog on your genitals to inspire sexual desire, and “you will marvel at the results.”)
Even by the Enlightenment, there was no abatement of folksy aphrodisiac experiments. The French king Louis XV and his lover the Madame de Pompidour ate rams’ testicles in the Palace of Versailles before nights of passion. Years later, when the Madame’s beauty was fading, she resorted to a diet of sexually-shaped vegetables such as truffles and celery, as well as desserts scented with the vaguely vaginal vanilla. (Evidently the results were disappointing, and the Madame finally confessed to Louis that she had never had much interest in sex. Undaunted, Louis set up his own brothel at Versailles called the Parc-aux-Cerfs, filled with girls between the ages of 9 and 18, but continued to meet with his former lover: Instead of forcing down plates full of truffles, they read together the titillating reports of the Parisian vice squad that chronicled the more baroque perversions of the French aristocracy).
The Enlightenment also saw a revival of interest in the ancient remedy known as “Spanish fly” – a powder made from dried, ground green blister beetles. The beetles contain the chemical cantharidin, which when ingested, cause the genitals to tingle and swell, which was mistaken for sexual arousal. Unfortunately, cantharidin is also a poison and can cause kidney malfunction or internal hemorrhaging if consumed in large quantities – as the Marquis de Sade found in 1772, when he plied two prostitutes with large quantities of aniseed sweets laced with Spanish fly and saw them collapse in agony, clutching their stomachs and vomiting. The exasperated Sade was charged with attempted murder and forced to flee France, mystified at what all the fuss was about. • 22 January 2008
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Hospodar, Miriam, “Aphrodisiac Foods: Bringing Heaven to Earth,” Gastronomica, vol. 4, no. 4, 2004, 80-93.