X is for… X-rated. We’re all familiar with the scene, from rom-coms and cheesy music videos: a woman toying with her food, sensuously sucking on a strawberry or tipping an oyster down her throat. As one of the senses, taste is linked closely to the others – touch, smell, sight (hearing perhaps less so). And it is, perhaps, the most sensuous: it’s hard to listen sexily.
No wonder, then, that throughout history, certain foods have been classed as aphrodisiacs. The word comes from ‘Aphrodite’, the ancient Greek goddess of Love – and the concept dates back at least as far. The Roman philosopher and physician Galen promoted the idea, which remained in currency for over a millennia and a half after his death, of ‘humours’ which rule the body and are dictated by the functions of the organs. He believed that foods which were warm and moist increased erotic desire – oddly, he also believed that foods that cause flatulence have the same affect. Spices were believed to increase the blood flow to the genitals, so they are common in aphrodisiac recipes of the time: peppers, anise, mustard, nettles.
Until recently, there was no differentiation between sexual desire and sexual function. If a man was impotent, or a woman infertile, it was simply because they weren’t fired up enough. Perhaps as a result, foods that resembled correctly functioning sexual organs became imbued with aphrodisiac powers. Mussels and oysters are said to have visual similarities with female genitalia, while cucumbers and so on are apparently phallic (I personally know nothing of these matters). Melons have been used to ape breasts for comic effect in numerous visual gags – Austin Powers springs to mind – and mandrake root was thought to cure barren women because it looks like open thighs.
Conversely, rare foods were also believed to have sexual potency. Potatoes were a popular aphrodisiac when they were first introduced, and parts of the skink lizard were consumed for their erotic effect. Chocolate is another example.
Of course, whether or not these foods do actually increase desire is an entirely different matter. Asparagus has long been thought to be an aphrodisiac (though presumably not by anyone who catches a whiff of their beloved’s urine after ingesting it), but there is no evidence to suggest that it has any effect on sexual desire. They work, if it all, due to a placebo effect.
The one exception is wine, which is known to lower the inhibitions and increase sexual appetite. But in excess it can hinder the act: as Shakespeare puts it in Macbeth, ‘It increases the desire but it takes away the performance.’ The best advice, as ever, comes from Ovid’s pen: ‘Prescribe no more my muse, nor medicines give / Beauty and youth need no provocative.’