All it took was one bite of an apple to get Adam and Eve in the mood. Since the beginning of time, food and carnal pleasures have been intertwined. Ancient cultures spent considerable effort pinpointing the best aphrodisiac foods, often with mixed results. Roman historian and philosopher Pliny the Elder believed basil to be a superior source of arousal, while his contemporary Dioscorides, a medic in the Roman army, prescribed it for headaches. (Maybe one was treating the husband and other, the wife.)
Today, most of our beliefs about erotic edibles come from folklore. Seafood, such as juicy oysters, and chocolate, dark and rich, are usually touted as romantic remedies. Runners-up include fruits and vegetables, mostly for their metaphoric resemblance to our erogenous zones. Think bananas, asparagus and figs. Avocados have the advantage of conjuring both the female and male form (the Aztecs called the avocado tree “ahucuatl,” or “testicle tree,” for the way they hung).
Chef Curt Robair of Emerson Resort and Spa in Mt. Tremper, New York (www.emersonresort.com) has come up with a romantic meal bringing together the well-known lust-inducing food stars and a few sexy scene stealers that is both healthy and lusciously decadent. It opens with a “love purse,” that is, a crepe pouch of shrimp, lobster and scallops with sweet amaretto cream; then lingers over “succulent” oyster stew, simmered in sweet sherry and “a hint of saffron;” before pausing in the middle: an entree of “mouth-watering” pan-seared filet mignon with a mushroom demi-glaze, sautéed asparagus and Yukon gold potatoes.
Robair teaches cooking classes at the spa three days a week and he is confident that he can help students create this “feast of love” with “succulent” and “mouth-watering” results. “It’s not your typical spa menu, but if there was ever a time to indulge, it would be for a romantic meal,” says Robair. “Much of what I do is help people feel less intimidated by cooking,” he says. “Practicing in a professional kitchen, where everything seems so much more complicated, with huge food processors and stoves, helps many feel more comfortable when they go back home. And I tell students, ‘if you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be in the kitchen.’”
Perhaps this is a sentiment to keep in mind when indulging your taste buds. “Any food that makes you happy is an aphrodisiac,” says Robair. “A tender, rich filet mignon makes me happy – which is why I included it in the menu.” The chef is in agreement with many psychologists on the subject: the brain is a powerful sex organ.
One online survey of 400 people conducted by sex therapist and author Linda DeVillers, Ph.D., found that 40 percent had very definite beliefs about what put them in the mood. [Please comment on your erotic favorite foods below.]
Recent nutritional research has suggested that some of the touted superstars of sexy foods may actually have more going for them than the power of suggestion. Yes, asparagus has its phallic qualities – (it can grow quite a few inches overnight, and bridegrooms in 19th century France were served four courses on the eve of their wedding) – but the green stalks also contain plenty of vitamin Bs, potassium and folic acid, all of which can balance sex hormones in both men and women. Avocadoes and bananas also contain the same potent source of vitamins.
Seafood has always been considered an aphrodisiac because the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite herself (where the word comes from), and her Roman counterpart Venus, were believed to have emerged from the sea (on an oyster shell, no less) before giving birth to little Eros, or Roman-named Cupid. The only scientific explanation so far: oysters and other shellfish are loaded with zinc which helps produce testosterone, a hormone that stimulates arousal in both men and woman.
And then of course there is chocolate, perhaps the most researched of aphrodisiacs. We know many sugary treats can boost the brain neurotransmitter serotonin which is linked to depression relief. Some compounds in chocolate also stimulate endorphins, the body’s opiate chemicals (similar to “runner’s high”). The main talked-about ingredient is the “love chemical” – phenylethylamine, or PEA, which has been found in higher quantities in couples in love. But scientists doubt PEA can be metabolized in a way to reach the central nervous system. In fact, sauerkraut is known to have more of the stuff.
But it’s doubtful anyone has called picked cabbage the “food of the gods,” the Latin name (theobrama cacoa) for the cacao tree. Quite sensibly, the grand finale of Robair’s love feast is chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate in the form of “hand-rolled” truffles and chocolate-covered strawberries.
For those who can’t get away, Robair’s offers his oyster stew recipe, from which Aphrodite herself may have sprung.
1 Tbspn. butter
1 tspn. chopped shallots
3/4 C cream
1/4 C milk
2 Tbspn. sweet sherry
4 saffron threads
6 fresh oysters (with tonic, i.e. “juice”)
1 tspn. chopped parsley
Sauté shallots in butter until soft, without browning. Add sherry, tonic and saffron. Simmer 1 minute. Add cream and milk and simmer 5 minutes (do not boil). Add oysters and simmer 5 more minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve.