Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Catalyst for Lust

or, Waiter, There's a Spanish Fly in My Soup

By Gwyneth Doland

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  Upon sighting a tree heavily laden with ripe fruit, Bonobos chimpanzees (genetically, our closest relatives) are known to engage in spontaneous, frenzied orgies before sitting down to eat. What is this? Aphrodisiacs in the animal world? Well, yes, in a way. Researchers think the kinky sex serves to strengthen bonds within the chimp community, ensuring a more even distribution of food afterwards.

Where am I going with the chimp story? I'm talking about the link between food and sex. Aphrodisiacs are foods (or drugs, but usually foods) which are supposed to inspire or intensify sexual desire. Since the beginning of time people have been concocting potions and lotions and soups and stews to help them get it on.

In centuries past, kings and peasants alike believed strongly in the amatory powers of rare or exotic items like "powdered back hairs of white whelp" and tomatoes (a New World fruit, remember?). English damsels of yore used to impress a piece of bread dough with the mark of their nether petals and feed it to their intended in the hopes that eating this "cocklebread" would cause them to succumb. Men put faith in any sort of phallic shaped or associated comestible like asparagus, crocodile semen, goat testicles and sea slugs (they plump when you touch 'em), probably sharing with cannibals the belief that by consuming them, they could absorb the powers of the previous owners.

Modern-day researchers have found that some foods traditionally known as aphrodisiacs actually do inspire some sort of a chemical reaction in the body. Whether that reaction triggers a real sexual stimulus is open to debate and personal experience. Black truffles, for instance, have been credited with aphrodisiac powers since the time of the ancient Greeks, but it was only recently that scientists found that these turd-like French fungi contain substantial quantities of anderosterone, a pheromone related to testosterone. (Many people believe that physical attraction is due, at least in part, to the subliminal effects of pheromones. I know a girl who encourages her boyfriends not to use deodorant for this very reason.) A chemical similar to anderosterone is also found in celery, carrots, parsnips and anchovies. The difference here is that the taste and smell of truffles, intensely musky and earthy, is far more exciting to most people than that of celery.

Chocolate contains an amphetamine-like chemical very similar to the substance our bodies produce when we're in love. But you chocoholics already knew that. This is an entirely different reaction from that produced by the Spanish fly of urban legend. Here's the real scoop: It was first discovered when French soldiers in North Africa ate the tender legs of frogs who had eaten a certain kind of Mediterranean beetle. This beetle contains a substance called cantharidin which, upon ingestion by humans, produces the effect of prolonged and painful erections. Which sounds like more fun to you, the chocolate or the beetles?

Oysters are always tops on the list of aphrodisiacs for several reasons. Obviously, the texture is unmistakably similar to that of the aforementioned nether petals. In addition, the mere act of eating a raw oyster, held up close to the mouth and slurped, is enough to bring color to the cheeks of a female dining companion. But it is more than just the function of the mouth as a pleasure center which demonstrates the undeniable link between sex and food. Nutritionally, oysters are an excellent source of zinc -- just one oyster provides your whole daily requirement, which is easily depleted in males since each ejaculation uses up a third of that. Healthy is sexy and eating right in general will help keep you in top shape for those marathon zinc-depleting sessions.

Beetles and zinc aside, the catalyst for lust is more likely to have a psychological than physiological root. So says Isabel Allende, author of House of the Spirits, who recently took a turn from magical realism (or did she?) and wrote a book on this subject called Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. Allende praises aphrodisiacs as "the bridge between gluttony and lust," the two cardinal sins she most enjoys repeatedly committing and (as a Catholic) being forgiven for. She gives lists of fruits, vegetables, meats, spices and liquors with aphrodisiac powers, interspersed with ramblings about love and lust.

But what's most interesting about Allende's book is that in presenting this information, she maintains a focuses on the psychological and emotional ways in which food can incite ardor. While she believes that the only true aphrodisiac is love, she does suggest that it couldn't hurt to try a menu of carefully, creatively prepared erotic foods heavily peppered with variety -- the spice of life.

For further reading, consult these sources:

  • Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses by Isabel Allende (Harper Perennial, $16)

  • Intercourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook by Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge (Terrace Publishing, $24.95)

  • Seduction and Spice: 130 Recipes for Romance by Rudolf Sodamin (Rizzoli, $39.95)

  • 50 Ways to Feed your Lover by Janeen A. Sarlin and Jennifer Rosenfeld Saltiel (William McMorrow & Co. $22).

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