“Hunger calls out, my reason bids me to eat” – John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
It’s beginning to look a lot like Valentine’s Day. Campus cafes have featured cinnamon dolce lattes and seasonal cards clutter bookstore windows. Despite limited scientific support, Canadians on-and-off campuses prepare to rush candy shops to purchase (perhaps unintentionally) a popular aphrodisiac: chocolate. It seems that our desire to lead active sex lives trumps active research into the medicinal quality of aphrodisiacs. What follows is a cursory glance at how when we eat with the expectation of love, we can sometimes confuse our desires with results.
Physician Thomas Fuller (1654 – 1734) is credited with one of the earliest published uses of the word, identifying “An Electuary of Satyrion” as “an Aphrodisiac” in Pharmacopœia extemporanea in 1710 (OED). Fuller may have been the first English physician to print the word, but he was not the first healer to link food to sexual performance. In Put What Where?, John Naish, a writer for The Times, dug up and published the following historical tips:
- To encourage vaginal lubrication, a 16th Century Indian text (Ratimanjari of Jayadeva attributed to Brahmin poet Jayadeva) suggested sprinkling a woman’s private bits with “powder made from two teeth of a king, mixed with the two wings of a bee, powdered, and a petal blown by the wind from a funeral wreath” (175).
- For “ten bouts of sex,” the Mawangdui medical manuscripts from 200 – 300BC read “take 20 wasp larvae and place them in one cup of sweet liquor and drink at midday” (175).
Of course, sex advice hasn’t always been scientific. Bedroom veterans have long shared their advice with eager men and women. In 1570, Venetians recommended drinking an elixir of chestnuts, pistachios, ragwort, cinnamon, cubebs, and sugar – not bee wings (176). Sometime between 1789 and 1797, Giacomo Casanova followed suit, celebrating oysters for their ability to excite consumers in Story of my Life:
We amused ourselves eating oysters, exchanging them when we already had them in our mouths….there is no more lascivious and voluptuous game between two lovers….What a sauce that is which dresses an oyster I suck from the mouth of the woman I love! It is her saliva. The power of love cannot but increase when I crush it (457).
For the most part it seems that science today has given up on aphrodisiacs. Our historic tendency to eat for love has moved from the realm of “tried and true” to “improbable.” Dr. Blake Moore at the University of Iowa recently indicated that diet has very little effect on erectile dysfunction – a condition which may have encouraged Casanova to call for oysters. But, Dr. Moore does not discount that “high fat diets, which can lead to high cholesterol levels, might eventually cause vascular disease and lead to erectile problems.”
The current break between aphrodisiacs and clinical endorsement is perhaps best exemplified by Air Force Wright Laboratory’s receipt of the Ig Nobel Award in 2007. These Ohio researchers were dishonored for attempting to produce a chemical (aphrodisiac) weapon that would make enemy soldiers drop their weapons and their pants. Popular Science Magazine was quick to cover the story as was Jay Leno and Fox News. Even 30 Rock thought aphrodisiacs (in the form of the “gay bomb”) laughable.
Aphrodisiacs, it seems, are making the transition from (un)popular science to popular comedy. But, the transition is far from complete. Recipes can still be found online to boost sexual performance. The website www.gourmetsleuth.com links readers of “Aphrodisiac Foods” to “Chocolate-Espresso Pots de Crème.” 2.5 cups of chilled whipping cream, 1 tablespoon of espresso powder and 5 ounces of bittersweet chocolate are touted as ingredients to help spice up your sex life.
Gourmands alone are not encouraged to eat for love; Yoga Journal encourages readers to follow the advice of Greeks (who believed mushrooms to be an aphrodisiac) and make “Wild Mushroom Bruschetta” as a “Valentine’s Day starter.”
Interestingly, recent journalists have mirrored scientific language in their articles on aphrodisiacs. For example, Cosmopolitan contributor Molly Triffin suggests eating hot chilies, containing capsaicin, to improve circulation and to help stimulate nerve endings. Avocadoes, containing vitamin E, are said to boost hormone production and, by extension, clitoral swelling. Here, the digestive process is credited with releasing vitamins and minerals and producing results. Triffin’s article emphasizes a causal relationship between food and performance – a link that Dr. Blake Moore just doesn’t see.
So, what can we conclude as the line outside of Laura Secord grows? Hope is a powerful thing. And, when it comes to lust, a trip to the candy shop trumps a trip to the library.
Casanova, Giacomo. History of my Life. Toronto, ON: Random House of Canada, 2007.
Fallon, Bernard. “Erectile Dysfunction: Frequently Asked Questions.” University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Accessed 13 November 2011.
Naish, John. Put What Where? Over 2000 Years of Bizarre Sex Advice. London, UK: HarperElement, 2005.
Oxford English Dictionary. “Aphrodisiac.” Accessed 13 November 2011.
Popular Science. “The Funniest Science on Earth.” Accessed 13 November 2011.
Triffin, Molly. “Aphrodisiac Foods That Feed Your Sex Drive.” Cosmopolitan. Accessed 10 November 2011.
Wilmot, John. “A Satyre Against Mankind.” The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. Minneapolis, MN: Filiquarian Publishing LLC, 2007. 23 – 30.
Yoga Journal. “Wild Mushroom Bruschetta.” Accessed 8 November 2011.