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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2009 08:05 pm

Food for love

How aphrodisiacs work

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Tita’s blood [which got into the sauce when she pricked herself on the roses] and Pedro’s roses proved quite an explosive combination. …when Pedro tasted his first mouthful [of the quail in rose petal sauce], he couldn’t help closing his eyes in voluptuous delight…. Tita wasn’t there, even though her body was sitting up quite properly in her chair. It was as if a strange alchemical process had dissolved her entire being in the rose petal sauce, in the tender flesh of the quails, in the wine, in every one of the meal’s aromas. With that meal it seemed they had discovered a new system of communication…through which the singular sexual message was passed.
—from Like Water For Chocolate, by Laura Esquirel


For millennia, certain foods have had the reputation of being aphrodisiacs. Sometimes it was primarily because a food was thought to resemble a sexual body part: the phallic shapes, say, of asparagus, bananas (including banana flowers), carrots and cucumbers; raspberries and strawberries that resemble nipples; oysters and fresh figs that suggest female genitalia.

Then there are avocados. The ancient Aztecs called avocado trees Ahuacuatl, testicle trees, because the fruits grow in pendulous pairs.

The list of foods and herbs thought to have romance-inducing qualities is extensive and mostly ancient. But scientists have found that many contain components that may have contributed to their reputation. Here are a few, cited by Lee Ann Obringer in How Aphrodisiacs Work:

For centuries, sweet basil was reputed to stimulate sex drive, boost fertility and a general feeling of well-being. Women would rub their breasts with it because the scent was said to drive men wild. An old Italian family friend told me that young men in Italy went courting with bunches of basil tucked behind their ears. Basil has been found to have the property of promoting circulation, as have other reported aphrodisiacs such as garlic and ginger.

The capsaicin contained in chili peppers is a good pain reliever, but it also generates a physiological response that’s similar to having sex: increased heart rate, circulation, and sweating.

In the medieval era, mead was drunk to promote sexual desire. Mead is a fermented beverage made from honey. In ancient Persia couples drank mead every day for a month after their wedding to get into the proper frame of mind for a successful marriage — the basis for our term “honeymoon.” Honey contains high levels of B vitamins (essential for testosterone production), as well as boron, which help women metabolize and utilize estrogen.

Chocolate has long been linked with love and romance. The Aztec king, Montezuma, legendarily drank 50 goblets of (unsweetened) chocolate a day to increase his power in general, and his sexual abilities in particular.

Modern researchers have found that chocolate contains phenyl ethylamine and serotonin, “feel good” chemicals that occur in humans naturally and are released by our brains when we are happy or feeling loving and/or passionate, producing a euphoric feeling like being in love. Additionally, researchers at the Neuroscience Institute of San Diego, California say that chocolate may also contain a neurotransmitter called anandamide that has an effect on the brain similar to that of marijuana. The amount of anandamide is tiny, not enough to make one “high,” but it can make another contribution to those chocolaty good feelings.

Last, but certainly not least, are oysters. Probably no other food has as mighty a reputation as an aphrodisiac as oysters. They’ve been documented as such by the Romans since the second century A.D., when the satirist Juvenal wrote of the wanton ways of women after drinking wine and eating “giant oysters.”

There do seem to be concrete reasons for the amorous reputation of oysters. They’re high in zinc, which has been linked with improving male sexual potency. Recently oysters, along with mussels and clams, have been found to contain D-aspartic acid and N-methyl-D-aspartate compounds that may be effective in releasing sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen.

Though it’s fun to speculate (and experiment), whether and how much the nutritional and chemical components of foods play into their sexiness will always be a matter of conjecture. But one thing’s for sure. As has been said before, the most important sexual organ is the brain. With the right attitude, the right setting and the right sense of adventure, you can make whatever you eat into an amorous experience.

Oyster aficionados say that the best, and sexiest, way to eat them is au naturel — freshly shucked, briny, sleekly slipping from their shell into your mouth with their liquor, with only a breath of lemon, or a dash of hot or cocktail sauce. I don’t disagree. But baked oysters can be wonderful, too, especially when not overcooked or when their flavor isn’t overwhelmed by toppings. This is my favorite baked oyster preparation, which I first had at the Buckeye Roadhouse in Marin County, Calif.

OYSTERS BINGO

Oysters in the shell, medium sized
Chopped cooked spinach, squeezed dry, approximately 2 tsp.-1 T. per oyster
Aïoli, recipe follows, approximately 2 tsp.-1 T. per oyster
Freshly grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese, approximately 1 tsp. per oyster

Purchase oysters that are tightly closed and fresh. Don’t be afraid to ask when they came in. Scrub them thoroughly under cold running water with a stiff brush.

Before shelling, look at the oyster. One side should be flatter; the other more rounded. It’s usually easiest to open the oyster with the rounded side down.

Now locate the hinge. In most oyster varieties, one end is more rounded and the other more pointed. The hinge is located in the narrow end.

Cover the oyster with a folded towel or a thick pad so that just the hinge area is exposed. This is important. It’s very easy to stab your hand if it is not protected. Hold the oyster firmly with the towel on a work surface. Insert the tip of the oyster knife into the hinge. Rock the knife up and down at first, then a little side to side to break the hinge. Once the hinge is broken, use your knife to sever the muscle from the top shell. Gently remove any bits of shell leaving as much of the liquor as possible. Then sever the muscle from the bottom shell, leaving the oyster in the bottom shell.

Preheat the broiler. Place the oysters on an ovenproof tray, preferably lined with parchment paper and/or filled with rock salt. Cover each oyster with the spinach, then cover the spinach completely with a thin layer of aioli. Sprinkle lightly with the cheese.

Broil until the aioli is set, and it and the cheese lightly browned, 5-10 minutes. Depending on your oven, you may want to rotate the tray so they brown evenly.

As with all classic mayonnaises, aïoli, the delectable French Provençal garlic mayonnaise, uses uncooked eggs. If you can’t find free-range eggs (which substantially reduce the risk of egg-born salmonella) or have health concerns, substitute 1 c. store-bought mayonnaise, such as Hellman’s (not Miracle Whip/salad dressing) for the egg and oil, and mixing in the remaining ingredients.

AÏOLI

1 large free-range egg
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. Dijon or stone-grained mustard
½ tsp. salt
3–4 sliced garlic cloves or to taste
½ c. extra virgin olive oil
½ c. neutral flavored vegetable oil

such as canola

Combine the egg, sugar, mustard, salt and garlic cloves in the container of an electric blender or food processor. Blend a couple of minutes or until the mixture is thoroughly puréed. With the motor still running, slowly pour the olive oil in a very thin stream into the container. It’s most important to add it slowly in the beginning.

Makes about 1 ½ cups.

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