Passion. Lust. Desire. According to the Greeks, it all began with a babe named Aphrodite—a.k.a. Venus. Supposedly, one fine day, Aphrodite sprang from the sea near the shores of Cythera wearing nothing more than a saucy smile. Fisherman stopped fishing. Beachcombers dropped their shells.
Aphrodite was more than beautiful, she was a goddess, and her name continues to be associated with desire and sexual pleasure. Traditionally, aphrodisiacs were made from things that bore a resemblance to human genitals: rhinoceros horns, oysters, bananas, carrots. In many instances, the appeal went beyond appearances. Rhino horn contains significant amounts of calcium and phosphorus, which could improve physical vigor and possibly lead to increased sexual appetite.
The hot seller of the 1960s, the Kama Sutra, was written in Sanskrit between the 1st and 4th centuries AD. Translated into English in the late 19th century, it contains recipes for sexual attraction that include the use of plants, aromatic oils and monkey excrement. If that doesn’t arouse your ardor, consider this sure-fire concoction: Take the testicle of a goat or ram and boil it in milk and sugar. The good news is that you don’t have to eat the testicles—but you’ve got to swallow the remaining liquid.
The Chinese compiled a pharmacopoeia describing the aphrodisiac properties of hundreds of plants, herbs and animal organs in 3000 BC. While the demand for tiger penis might have diminished, ginseng has found widespread acceptance in the U.S. in the form of tea. Although it’s recommended for fatigue, headaches, heart disease and diabetes, ginseng is also associated with sexual rejuvenation. While the FDA has ignored the plant’s aphrodisiac properties, it wasted no time in approving its use in the cardiac glycoside digitalin, which reduces heart attacks. For centuries, the people of Asia and Indochina not only ingested ginseng, they wore it in amulets around their necks to maintain virility, fertility and power over the object of their affection.
Forbidden in some religions, the consumption of wine was strongly associated with sexual desire in the Old Testament. While there’s no denying the mellowing effect of a nice cabernet and its ability to reduce inhibitions, too much of a good thing is a bad thing when it comes to alcohol: The aphrodisiac effects of moderate consumption are cancelled out by drunkenness, which is known to cause impotence.
In the 14th century, Armagnac was sold in France as a magic potion with aphrodisiac powers. It was the favorite drink of the legendary Three Musketeers before they went off in search of military and romantic conquests. Today, France’s oldest brandy is still believed to restore men’s youthful vigor and make women receptive to erotic adventures.
Spanish fly is made from dried beetles crushed to a powder. If it’s taken orally, symptoms include a burning sensation in the mouth, severe abdominal cramps and vomiting, followed by diarrhea. The Marquis de Sade was imprisoned for giving Spanish fly to unsuspecting prostitutes, resulting in their deaths.
Now, about those oysters. In ancient Rome, they were eaten in enormous quantities as the first course of an orgy. Emperor Vitellius once ate 1,000 at one sitting. Abe Lincoln consumed oysters by the hundreds. They contain zinc, phosphorus and copper, which are necessary for good health and maintaining a healthy sex drive.
Supposedly, the sight of a man eating a raw fig in the presence of his lover is enough to make her wild. This belief was immortalized by the actor Alan Bates in the film version of D.H. Lawrence’s book Women in Love. A more popular notion is the amorous effects of a heart-shaped box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day. When combined with long-stemmed red roses, some wine and dinner at a romantic restaurant, the results are almost guaranteed. The Aztecs called chocolate “nourishment of the Gods.” Medical research has shown it stimulates chemicals in the brain much like those released when we’re in love. It also contains theobromine, a substance related to caffeine that provides an energy boost.
You might think the sexiest thing about caviar is its price. But in Eastern and Western lore, fish eggs and those of other animals are universal symbols of fertility. Another aphrodisiac that comes with a high price tag is the truffle—not the chocolate kind but the fungus listed on menus at restaurants that don’t show prices. Athenians prized truffles for their ability to increase sexual stamina. Madame de Pompadour used them to turn up the heat in her lukewarm marriage at the Court of Versailles. Casanova used truffles to prepare for his nightly conquests.
Believe it or not, tomatoes were once thought to possess aphrodisiac qualities and were shunned by Puritans. In Italy, however, they became the staple of their cuisine. Although there is no scientific evidence to back it up, it’s safe to conjecture that 18th-century Italians had more fun in bed than our chaste colonial ancestors.
The search for aphrodisiacs is as active today as it was when Cleopatra prepped for a night with Mark Anthony by bathing in milk and honey. But according to the government, there really is no such thing as an aphrodisiac. FDA-approved drugs like Viagra may trigger a physiological response, but they don’t affect the libido.
The FDA has cleared the use of testosterone and androgens for increasing libido in men and women. It works, but not without side effects. Women who increase their androgen level can grow facial hair and even become bald—in essence, turning into their husbands. Not so sexy.
Spice Up Your Love Life
Anise was one of the main ingredients in cakes served at Roman feasts (the origin of our wedding cakes). In India, it was believed that ingesting powdered anise and honey increased the size of a man’s genitals.
Cardamon is a popular aphrodisiac in India and Arabic cultures.
Cloves contain eugenol, long considered to enhance sexual desire.
Coriander’s powdered seeds and leaves were steeped in water, then strained and mixed into a lover’s food or drink to increase ardor.
Fennel was eaten daily by the gladiators in Rome to increase their virility on the battlefield and in the bedroom.
Ginger contains gingerols, zingiberene and other agents valued in Arabic and Asian cultures for their erotic qualities.
Mace and nutmeg contain myristicin (related to mescaline), which causes hallucinations in large doses and is used as an aphrodisiac in smaller amounts.
Pepper from India contains piperine, a pungent agent that stimulates sexual function (according to ancient beliefs).
Saffron comes from the crocus flower and contains picrocrocin, which allegedly encourages erotic sensations.
Vanilla is derived from the black seedpod of an orchid that grows in South America. The Aztecs flavored their chocolate with it, believing the combination enhanced sexual energy.
Recipe for Love
• Chilled champagne served with sugared almonds
• Raw oysters topped with salmon caviar
• Côte du Rhone or cabernet wine
• Strip steak with mustard-peppercorn sauce
• Asparagus vinaigrette and truffled potatoes
• Dark chocolate sorbet
• Fresh figs
• Espresso and Armagnac
5 medium-size potatoes, peeled; 4 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened; ½ tbsp. olive oil; 1 onion, thinly sliced; 1 tsp. sugar; ¼ cup truffle shavings, chopped; salt and pepper
• Parboil potatoes 10 minutes. Drain and place on paper towels. Season with salt and pepper
• Melt 1 tbsp. butter with oil in large skillet over medium heat. Brown whole potatoes on all sides, turning often. Remove from pan and keep in warm oven
• Melt another tbsp. of butter in the same skillet. Add onions, sugar, salt and pepper, stirring until onions are soft
• In a small bowl, combine truffles and remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper and mix well
• Slice potatoes into ¼-inch rounds and arrange on plates with onion mixture in center and a dollop of the truffle butter on top.