From the Garden of Eden to the oyster cellar bordellos of old New York, food and sex are entwined. Although every food under the sun has been touted as an aphrodisiac at some point in time, humans tend to get turned on by three categories of food: extremely expensive food, food that is risky to acquire, and food that resembles genitalia.
Rare and exotic foods have favored positions in the canon of culinary aphrodisiacs. Consider the truffle, the piranha and the labor of harvesting a plate full of sparrow tongues. Foods from far-off lands have the spicy whisper of perilous adventure, and there’s nothing quite like a hint of mystery to stimulate the imagination. For example, Aztec concubines taught the conquistadors to drink hot chocolate; when the Spaniards carried the exotic substance across the sea to Europe, they brought with it the rumor that the drink was an aphrodisiac. And during the reign of Charles I, when rice was still a luxury in Europe, noble Casanovas swore by the improbable aphrodisiac of rice boiled in milk and flavored with cinnamon.
As an ingredient becomes common, and thus cheaper, it loses its magic. Case in point: the potato. Your modern Brit is unlikely to find a plate of mashed potatoes sexually stimulating, but potatoes and sweet potatoes were hailed as aphrodisiacs when they were first introduced to the European palate; in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Falstaff reels off a list of the era’s aphrodisiacs: kissing comfits, snow eryngoes (the candied roots of sea holly), and potatoes. Once rare ingredients such as cinnamon, cloves, marmalade, rice and pepper have likewise lost their sexy status.
The second largest umbrella group of chewable aphrodisiacs is based on the crude logic that if something looks like your nasty bits, it’ll undoubtedly put your prospective partner in the mood. Thus, scheming Lotharios and temptresses have long relied on the amorous offering of edible flowers and roots. In the British Isles, wake robin (Arum maculatum) was once valued as a thickener for puddings, a starch for Elizabethan neck ruffs, and for its phallic bloom, which earned the plant a reputation as an aphrodisiac and spawned over 20 suggestive folk names, including Adam and Eve, lords and ladies, devils and angels, stallions and mares, and dog’s dick. On a similar note, the word “orchid” is derived from the ancient Greek word for testicle. Pliny the Elderrecommended bulbous orchid tubers as an aphrodisiac, and the Romans called orchids “satyrion” because legend had it that the phallic roots grew from the spilled semen of a satyr.
The tribes of Mexico preferred not the root but the flower. The Totonoc Indians believed that the orchid Vanilla planifolia sprang from the blood of a goddess, and the Aztecs named it tlilxochitl, or black flower. Vanilla planifolia is an inherently romantic plant: its small blossoms open in the morning and are exclusively pollinated by hummingbirds and melipone bees. The dirty-minded Conquistadors noted the pod’s resemblance to female genitalia, and gave the plant the name vanilla, which derived from the Latin for sheath. Europeans soon prized vanilla as an aphrodisiac; wild stories circulated that vanilla could transform the ordinary man into an astonishing lover. Elizabeth I is said to have been especially fond of vanilla pudding.Oysters and clams have had a lewd reputation since history’s dawn. The Roman author Juvenal (a nasty misogynist) uses oysters to complete his portrait of a slut partying away the night: “When she knows not one member from another, eats giant oysters at midnight, pours foaming unguents into her unmixed Falernian, and drinks out of perfume-bowls, while the roof spins dizzily round, the table dances, and every light shows double!” In keeping with the Roman talent for using food to call attention to those ultimate aphrodisiacs — wealth and power — emperors and aristocrats turned their noses up at local oysters and sent away to the British Isles for a superior variety. The association between oysters and strumpets would have staying power: As Rebecca Stott points out in her book “Oyster,” “Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the woman oyster seller was used in poetry as a figure of erotic play, something like the oyster, to be consumed, part of the sensuous fruit of the street for the male urban voyeur.” In 19th century America, underground oyster saloons catered to base instincts — guests could slurp back dozens of oysters while cavorting with good-time girls and prostitutes; some of the seedier joints offered private rooms. A few decades later and a few hundred miles south, scantily clad ladies would shimmy in a popular striptease act called the oyster dance. In the 1940s, Kitty West (a cousin of Elvis Presley) danced on Bourbon street as “Evangeline the Oyster Girl”; to open her act, she stepped with aplomb from a giant half shell.