Passion: Eat it up.

Long before foodies were swooning with phrases like “Food is my passion,” physicians, philosophers and well-meaning matchmakers were exhorting foods for, well, passion.

We’re talking, of course, about aphrodisiacs: food or drink said to promote sexual desire or prowess. The term takes its name from Aphrodite, the Greek love goddess who easily seduced gods (Dionysus, Hermes and Poseidon, among others) and men (yes, ladies, we’re talking Adonis). Her affair with the tempestuous Ares gave birth to Eros: a k a Cupid, in Roman mythology.

But so much for supernatural exploits. Humans were anxious to bring temptation down to Earth.

The Old Testament has Jacob’s wives bartering over mandrake root. Cleopatra employed copious amounts of saffron. Pliny the Elder, a first-century naturalist, recommended anise seed, while the ancient physician Galen favored turnips, asparagus and carrots.

Onions. Beans. Radishes. Garlic. Mutton. Not what we’d consider the sexiest items to ever hit a plate, perhaps, but all of them — and countless others — were at one time, in some place, credited with having carnal powers.

Some foods achieved status thanks to the Doctrine of Signatures, a principle holding that anything resembling a body part must affect that body part. With an imagination that strikes the modern mind as comically delusional, anything remotely phallic or feminine was declared an aphrodisiac.

Other foods (think eggs, seeds, nuts) got the nod because of their fertile role in nature. Still others did because they were expensive or exotic, imparting a sense of power and indulgence.

Well …

Did they work?

Yes. No. And maybe.

As modern psychologists tell us, the brain is the ultimate sex organ; i.e., if you believe something will rock your boat, then batten down the hatches.

But do these substances have any purely physiological effect? Not so much, science says.

Chocolate’s reputation was sealed by Montezuma, who purportedly drank up to 50 cups before entering his harem, and indeed, cacao contains chemicals known to induce euphoria. On the downside, studies show that a 130-pound person would have to eat 25 pounds of chocolate to significantly alter their inclinations — a feeding frenzy more likely to promote nausea than coitus.

Similarly, oysters may spike testosterone, but nutritionists speculate that you’d need to imbibe them in Casanova quantities — 50 a day, for breakfast — to have a noticeable impact on virility. And one wonders if Casanova’s preferred method of consumption (passing the slippery mollusk into his lover’s lips) was his true secret to success. Ditto for chile peppers: They quicken the pulse and induce sweating, but if you find them sexy, it’s probably because the flush and heartthrob mimic sensations of arousal.

Spanish fly (the dried remains of a blister beetle) enjoyed a following that ranged from the scheming wife of Augustus Caesar to the lecherous Marquis De Sade. But since it’s essentially an irritant, side effects have been described as being about as pleasant as a bladder infection. It can also be highly toxic. As in “Lights out, my love. Forever.”

So much for Western hook-ups. What’s shaking in the East?

Asian herbalists pay $65,000 a kilo for rhino horn. (The rhino, poached nearly to the point of extinction, pays even more dearly.) But researchers say the horn’s composition is comparable to a human fingernail, with a medicinal effect of zilch. Conversely, Yarsagumba — the mummified remains of a bat moth caterpillar invaded by a fungus — may have scientific validity. But “Himalayan Viagra,” as it’s sometimes called, only works when ingested daily. At the equivalent of $1,300 for a monthly dose (not to mention the human cost of the Nepalese turf wars spawned by trade), it seems sexier to just opt for the little blue pill.

The link with aroma

Finally, no discussion of aphrodisiacs would be complete without a look at current work being done on the psychology of food and smell. Some research suggests that for women, the most erotic scents include doughnuts mingled with licorice. For men, the ultimate turn-on may be the smell of pumpkin pie. Researchers are quick to point out, however, that reactions are probably due to memory associations — say, a Thanksgiving-weekend tryst with your high school crush. As such, they’re highly subjective.

While all this may disappoint those hell-bent on a magic bullet, it’s very good news for cooks. You could put virtually anything on the Valentine’s plate, and say you did it for love. Intention works wonders. When served with a side of romance.

Dip into guacamole, and mention that virgins were banished from Aztec avocado fields because the fruit was deemed corruptive.

Fete your love on honey, declaring that the word “honeymoon” stems from the Babylonian tradition that kept newlyweds secluded for an entire moon, or month, feeding on honey cakes and mead.

Share an artichoke, and whisper that Catherine de Medici’s voracious appetite for this thistle — eaten by stripping away the leaves and teasing the flesh off with her teeth — scandalized even the French.

All told, history concludes that what you call an aphrodisiac is really up to you. If perception matters most, it’s the thought that counts. Perhaps your best move is simply to give them what they love. Then serve it up with passion.


Jo Marshall is a Minneapolis writer.