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NewCityNet Flighty Aphrodite

Isabel Allende mixes food and sex.

By Margaret Wappler

APRIL 20, 1998:  Isabel Allende bends the rules, sometimes into veritable loops. To assemble a whole book out of the lore of aphrodisiacs, she mixes history, personal testimony and recipes. Many of her paragraphs drift languorously into tempestuous asides and hypnotizing memories that send the blood pumping.

At times, Allende's words dance across the pages like the illustrated pixie characters that pop up throughout "Aphrodite," sprinkling spicy anecdotes and coquettishly poking fun at how seriously some take the link between food and sex.

The celebrated author of "The House of the Spirits" asserts repeatedly that the most powerful aphrodisiac is being in love, not recipes involving canary tongues, which Allende and her chef mother Panchita (who created the bulk of the featured recipes) thankfully omit from their pages. Youth helps, too. As Allende writes, a simple cup of chamomile tea turns on the young.

Though I was thankful to read a book about aphrodisiacs that didn't begin and end in the Fannie May bon-bon world of chocolates (the only truffles mentioned here are of the fungal variety), some recipes were definitely stretched to uplift any amorous qualities. Allende and her mother take the two most unsexy ingredients imaginable-artichokes and unflavored gelatin-to concoct "Artichoke Whisper." Like all books written to stir the passions, "Aphrodite" relies on liberal swashes of the power of suggestion to float past rough spots.

There are times when even Allende's powers to spellbind with shimmery scenes of eroticism languish under the tight reign of heart (or other organs) and stomach. After reading for a couple of hours, you begin to feel walled in, suffocated by a once-fragrant, now-noxious flooding of the senses. You want to gorge, you want to get frisky, but pretty soon you just want to do something else besides think about papayas and erections. You toy with the idea of whirling up a feast in the kitchen, the waft of heavy aromas luring lovers out of the cracks in the wall. Then you realize a cup of chamomile tea will do quite nicely.

(Margaret Wappler)

Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses
Isabel Allende
Harper Flamingo, 315 pages, $26

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