THE ACT OF EATING has been tied to the Act since we first crawled out of our caves. Lust and gluttony stroll hand in hand through shadowy evenings, lust slyly winking at that cute boy on the corner while gluttony sips champagne from her slipper. Parenting is not the strong suit of these sins, but together they have given birth to an enormous family: aphrodisiacs. Like all children, this brood encompasses charming prodigies and sticky-faced monsters; unlike with kids, it’s hard to tell at a glance which is which. Every culture claims its own favorite, occasionally killing off an entire species in its passion for passion. But many aphrodisiacs exist in plenitude and are delightfully easy to prepare at home.
The redheaded stepchild in the aphrodisiac family is Spanish fly. Made from the crushed shells of the appropriately named blister beetle, it’s been around since the time of Hippocrates himself, and even then was known to cause problems. Absorbed through the stomach, skin, and mucous membranes, the active ingredient, cantharidin, can cause nephritis and irritation of the entire urogenital tract—not a sensation that generally gets your motor running. Forget whatever urban myths involving gearshifts you may have heard; this stuff appeals only to those who find the experience of a bladder infection to be erotic.
So skip the fly and begin your journey of romantic edibles in the wonderful world of bivalves, which promise more lasting allure. From the timid mussel to the mighty geoduck, every bivalve boasts of increasing vigor in men and interest in women. Oysters are the most widely known, with Casanova himself calling them “a spur to the spirits and to love.” Eaten on the half shell, they slide down the throat gracefully and leave behind a not-unpleasant salty tang, similar to the not-unpleasant salty tang of certain other things that shall remain nameless. Mussels take well to garlicky sauces, either cream or tomato based, and plucking them out of their shells and feeding your loved one by hand may lead to all sorts of enjoyable activities. That laughable god-among-men the geoduck makes for a tough chowder but achieves high acclaim when served as sashimi. In Japan, our phallic friend has replaced both reindeer antler and rhino horn as a popular aphrodisiac, fetching over $30 per pound. With geoducks, one look is enough to determine where its reputation began; with other shellfish, the truth is lost to history. They are expensive and relatively rare, which certainly adds to the allure, and a certain bravery is required to toss back such a slithery gray mass. Whatever the real story, a half-dozen oysters, a glass of champagne, and a squirt of lemon make an ideal appetizer for a romantic evening.
While salads are sexy when eaten in small bits with your fingers, most of them are too good for you to provide a very sensual experience. If you are determined to include a green salad on the menu, use plenty of fresh herbs like parsley, basil, and fennel—all have naughty reputations—and add tidbits of fresh fruits, like pear, satsuma, or mango. They add juicy little surprises to every other bite, and you want a night full of juicy little surprises, don’t you? If you can find flavorful ones, sliced tomatoes with basil, olive oil, and black pepper might be a more successful salad. Originally, our rosy little friends were known as “love apples,” and women of good reputation would have rather starved than eaten them. Only courtesans were bold enough to add them to dishes, and they were also the first to dry them in the sun for use year-round. If good fresh ones are unavailable, offer a puttanesca antipasto plate of olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and anchovies—each an aphrodisiac in its own right; combining them may be downright dangerous.
For a main course, splurge on something small and expensive. More shellfish are appropriate, as are truffles or other wild mushrooms, snails, or delicate slices of carpaccio or proscuitto. Anything that can be picked up in the fingers, dipped in butter, and fed to your lover is a good choice, and make sure to offer a sprinkling of invigorating spices—du Barry swore by fresh ginger to ignite the passions of her rather elderly king. While cooked meat of any kind is not considered especially exciting, loin chops and boneless breasts are an excellent foil for titillating companions like toasted almonds, apricots, hot mustard, and avocados (called “ahuacatl” by the Aztecs, which is also the word for “testicle”). Keep it small, keep it decadent, and keep it simple. It’s always more fun to be cuddling on the couch than sweating over the stove.
DESSERT SHOULD ideally be served naked. Honey is a fine accessory, as you might remember from the good bits of The Song of Songs. A gooey chocolate anything will carry you nicely from table to bed, while berries, bananas, and figs offer all sorts of erotic possibilities. More champagne is appropriate, or perhaps a sip or two of your favorite liqueur. If you need extra stimulation, a cup of Turkish coffee or some ginger tea are recommended by the experts.
Whatever dishes you decide on, remember that on this occasion, lust takes priority over gluttony. Licking flavorful sauces off your lover’s fingers is delightful; popping the top button on your pants, clutching your distended belly, and announcing the presence of a “food baby” ranges from inappropriate to appalling. Eat rich dishes, but in small quantity. Drink, but in moderation. Know that one of the few things more satisfying than eating beloved food is cooking that same food for your beloved. Fight over that last truffle, but remember that in matters of love, it is often more fun to lose.
City Fish, Pike Place Market, 682-9329 Queen Anne Thriftway, 1908 Queen Anne N., 284-2530 Dig your own! www.wa.gov/wdfw/lic/licinf.htm for license and season information
Corner Produce, Pike Place Market, 621-8480: mushrooms, herb-infused olive oils, fabulous fruits DeLaurenti Specialty Foods, Pike Place Market, 622-0141: sun-dried tomatoes, olive oils, proscuitto, honey Larry’s Markets, www.larrysmarkets.com, several locations: dried wild mushrooms, fresh herbs year ’round www.earthy.com: truffles and truffle oils, gourmet specialty products
Fran’s Chocolates, www.franschocolates.com, 2594 N.E. University Village, 528-9969, and 10305 N.E. 10th, Bellevue, 425-453-1698: triple chocolate torte, chocolate imperials (topped with gold dust!) Pacific Dessert Company, 127 Mercer, 384-8100: chocolate decadence, Linzer torte Pasta and Co., www.pastaco.com, several locations: lovely small-sized cheesecakes in various flavors
Intercourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook by Martha Hopkins Venus in the Kitchen edited by Norman Douglas