Setting the Table, Setting the Mood
Being Valentine’s Day, I’m detouring to explore a different kind of appetite: the history + science of aphrodisiac foods.
Derived from Aphrodite — born from the sea foam, rising up nude, a fully grown woman — the term ‘aphrodisiac’ may have originated as a reference to the seduced followers of this Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure + procreation. Over time the term became associated with ingredients said to increase desire, some merely by powers of suggestion (ahem, asparagus, banana + eggplant).
Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate. ― Alan D. Wolfelt
While scant evidence exists to confirm that certain foods actually boost libido, stripping down the research reveals that many of the so-called aphrodisiacs contain vitamins, minerals, enzymes or fatty acids vital to sexual + reproductive health. Others are rich in nutrients that interact with neurotransmitters + endorphins in our brains, with blood flow, with hormone levels — all required by the body to promote feelings of mental, emotional + physical arousal.
Grab a cool glass of water + your meal planner, and read on for an intimate look at my top ten really good mood foods — plus sweet + savory recipes to celebrate each.
1. Figs. In many ancient Mediterranean cultures the fig symbolized both fertility + sexuality owing both to its shape + preponderance of seeds found within. The fruit was considered sacred to the mythological god of ecstasy + wine, Dionysus, and the plural of ‘fig’ in ancient Greek was the same word as that for ‘testicles.’
Set the mood: A member of the mulberry family, one serving (about 3 medium figs or 150 grams) provides almost 10% of your daily needs for vitamin B6 + potassium — two nutrients important for increased circulation, optimum energy levels, and production of sex hormones. Research indicates that figs are a source of the flavanoid quercetin, which has strong antioxidant properties + may bump up testosterone — a key component in both male + female arousal.
2. Dark Chocolate. Dating back to the ancient mesoamerican Mayans + Aztecs, chocolate was considered a gift from the gods, and was widely used as an aphrodisiac. The scientific name for the cacao tree, Theobroma, actually translates to “food of gods.” The beans from cacao pods were used by both civilizations as a form of currency, and legend says that the Aztec Emperor Montezuma downed 50 golden goblets of drinking chocolate daily in order to satisfy his 600-some wives (and probably himself in the process).
Set the mood: In addition to its rich, intense flavor + color, eating dark chocolate (≥ 60% cocoa solids) is said to mimic the euphoric feeling of love, due partly to a release of the neurotransmitter phenylethylamine in the brain. Compared to milk chocolate, the cacao-rich dark chocolate is a more concentrated source of energizing iron, as well as the amino acid tryptophan that ups production of the feel-good hormone serotonin. Furthermore, caffeine + the bio-active compound theobromine act as stimulants, providing an instant boost to heart rate, circulation, energy + stamina.
Set the table: If you need amorous dessert ideas, look no further than our decadent flourless dark chocolate stout torte or the admittedly suggestive dark chocolate spice-kissed banana pops. Usually reserved for Christmas in our house, dark chocolate peanut butter jingle bells are a bit like truffles + incorporate two ingredients from this list.
3. Pomegranates. The first pomegranate tree was said to have sprouted from the shed blood of an infant Dionysus; whereas others propose that this, not the apple, grew in the Garden of Eden to tempt Adam and Eve. A symbol of fertility — because it can contain up to eight hundred seeds per fruit — the pomegranate also appeared with amorous Aphrodite in Greek mythology + Astarte, goddess of war and sexual love in the ancient Middle East.
Set the mood: Also known as the ‘love apple,’ the pomegranate is rich in antioxidants, including vitamin C, that support improved blood flow + help block free radicals from destroying nitric oxide, which is naturally released during arousal. Pomegranates are also a rich source of several of the energizing B vitamins.
Set the table: Browned butter pomegranate rose madeleines are a sweet, pretty way to end a meal or to enjoy with afternoon tea + chana dal with spinach, cucumber and pomegranate could be a nice lunch or light supper course.
4. Avocados. Ancient Aztecs used the curvaceous, rich + creamy avocado as a sexual stimulant. That these fruits grow dangling in pairs was not lost on them — the Aztec name for the avocado tree, Ahuacatl, translates to “testicle tree.”
Set the mood: A 1/2-cup serving of (sliced) avocados imparts roughly 20% of your DVs for vitamins C + B6, as well as potassium. Aside from roles promoting energy, vitamin B6 helps synthesize serotonin, while potassium is linked to the production of sex hormones. Avocados are a good source of vitamin E, which further ups energy + creation of libidinous sex hormones, enhances circulation throughout the body, promotes a healthful glow of the skin to increase physical attraction, and may improve semen quality + motility. This serving also comes with about 1.5 g protein + 8 g unsaturated fats, to ensure your energy boost lasts.
Set the table: Mix up pomegranate arils with avocado + zucchini, or serve an avocado fattoush salad to set the stage. Citrus-garlic marinated salmon + strawberry avocado salsa, or seared tuna with black olive, preserved lemon + avocado would be lovely splurge meals to get you in the mood.
5. Nuts. Buttery pine nuts show up in historical lore as a method of increasing sexual stamina in men. The delicate aroma of almonds — another ancient fertility symbol — is said to excite women. In African folklore the lust-inducing potential of peanuts was strong so that young + unmarried females were forbidden from consuming them.
Set the mood: All three offer decent amounts of vitamin E (almonds FTW), while the amino acid L-arginine that may enhance pleasure through synthesis of nitric oxide. Omega-3s in pine nuts and monounsaturated fats in almonds + peanuts help improve blood flow, aid in sex hormone production + increase dopamine release in the brain. Pine nuts are rich in zinc — a mineral that primes our immune systems for conception, helps produce testosterone, and promotes healthy eggs + improved motility of sperm. Almonds + peanuts are sources of phenylalanine — the precursor to phenylethylamine found richly in dark chocolate. And then, of course, there’s protein for sustained energy.
Set the table: Greet the day amorously over roasted peanut butter toast. Or sprinkle almond coconut dukkah seasoning over a bowl of curry-spiced carrot soup with studded rosemary nut crackers at lunch. Maybe share a plate of bright celeriac, chickpea, SarVecchio + pine nut salad before a light fish course (oysters?), finishing with golden domed almond-ginger macaroons or cocoa-dusted espresso blondies?
6. Chillies + Peppercorns. The ancient Aztec civilization is credited with discovering the passion-stimulating properties of chillies. It is believed that all those cups of liquid chocolate drank by the great ruler Montezuma before visiting his harem contained this spicy secret ingredient to enhance virility. Peppercorns often made an appearance in recipes for medieval love potions.
Set the mood: Bio-active chemical compounds capsaicin in chillies + piperine in peppercorns excite nerve cells, increase body temperature + trigger the brain to release feel-good endorphins, and capsaicin in particular is associated with increased levels of testosterone. Physical sexual attraction may pique as well, as improved, targeted blood flow plumps lips + blushes cheeks.
Set the table: Dial up the heat in more ways than one by flavoring your dishes with homemade blends of dried herbs, spices, chillies + peppercorns like Ras el hanout or garam masala; or go for freshness with chipotle vanilla smoked salmon or a gorgeous strawberry Halloumi pizza with spinach (or arugula!) serrano chillies + chives.
7. Warming Spices. Cultures across the globe have long lauded the aphrodisiac qualities of various spices. Beyond a natural warm kick, ancient Greeks + Romans believed licorice-y aniseed enhanced female sexual arousal; in early Chinese + Hindu civilizations it was said that both nutmeg + ginger stimulated sexual attraction + desire, especially in men; and elsewhere throughout history cinnamon + cardamom were used to stir up passion.
Set the mood: The trademark spice from ginger, nutmeg + cinnamon increases peripheral blood flow, heats up the body + triggers release of mood-enhancing hormones in much the same way as chillies + peppercorns. All of the above have abundant antioxidant properties, as well as essential oils that provide small amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Set the table: Fan the flames with a cup of coffee in the morning or after endorphin-pumping exercise with spicy 4-seed gingerbread bites or golden (milk) bites, then end the day sharing homemade graham crackers — perhaps over the fire with marshmallows + squares of dark chocolate.
8. Garlic. After eating garlic, nicknamed the “stinking rose,” monks in Tibet were barred from entering the monastery because of its potential to incite lusty, amorous feelings.
Set the mood: Though we don’t typically eat garlic in large quantities, the cloves contains vitamins B6 + C, and a variety of antioxidants, like small amounts of selenium. Studies show that selenium is essential for a healthy sperm count, improved sperm quality + fertility. Additionally, a sulfur compound called allicin stimulates peripheral blood flow including, you know, the nether regions, that may result in greater stamina + sexual appetite. Allicin is more potent when broken down, so hedge your bets and mince or smash it up before using. Better still, roast it into a sweet, creamy paste + make sure your companion has similar intake.
Set the table: Serve romance in a bowl with spicy calamari stew with garlicky croutons or clams with brussels sprouts, bacon, white wine + angel hair.
9. Arugula. “Sexy” isn’t an adjective I think of when describing peppery arugula, but this tender leafy green was used in history since biblical times as an aphrodisiac, purportedly by the ancient Roman elite + soldiers.
Set the mood: Rich in antioxidants, including vitamin C, a 2-cup serving of raw arugula is an excellent source of vitamin A — deficiency of which is linked to decreased production of sex hormones in both men + women.
Set the table: Jewel-toned summer’s end salad or composed Thai steak salad would be light romantic meals, but I’d lean toward getting into the kitchen together to hand-make ‘shortcut’ ravioli with peas, mint + ricotta with a browned butter pan sauce (swapping arugula in for the spinach).
And last but definitely not least…
10. Oysters. Thought to affect desire, folklore suggests that the notorious Italian author + playboy Casanova ate 50 raw oysters for breakfast every morning. Seems like his expensive habit may hold water…
Set the mood: With roughly 10 g protein per 3-oz serving, oysters are the richest known source of important-for-fertility zinc, providing more than 10x that of an equivalent serving of beef. This serving is also an excellent source of antioxidant selenium + iron, offers about 250% of your daily vitamin B12, and contains certain rare amino acid derivatives that may trigger release of testosterone + estrogen.
Forget the old adage that these briny bivalves can only be consumed in months with an “r” in the name. With the advent of safe food handling + storage, oysters are a go year-round. Here on the North Carolina coast, a stone’s throw from some seriously choice oyster real estate, our season runs from mid-October to the end of March — perfect timing. (Here’s how to safely shuck yours.)
Set the table: Acid makes oysters pop — something simple like lemon wedges or a crisp mignonette (pom + peppercorn or peppercorn + Meyer lemon) will do nicely. Or pull out all the stops like our NYE 2015 with Oysters Rockefeller, broiled cherry tomato + crimini skewers, tenderloin tartare served on a pear-arugula salad + bubbles in slender glasses.
When romance is on the menu, my suggestion is to keep things light, favoring a presentation that won’t weigh you down. Because even though aphrodisiacs may have more of a placebo than actual effect on libido, if you’re game for delicious, nutrient-packed meals with someone you care about — who knows?
Have a truly love-ly Valentine’s Day!
Tell me… Which foods or beverages do you find most romantic?
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