Valentine's Day with the Fat Guy

Aphrodisiacs are all in the mind, says our resident food and sex expert.

Published February 14, 2001 8:24PM (EST)

Three hundred years after Jesus' death, a priest named Valentine was imprisoned by the pagan Roman Empire for teaching Christianity. While behind bars, he is said to have cured the jailer's daughter of her blindness (through prayer, that is). He later wrote her a letter signed: "From Your Valentine." The same day, Feb. 14, he was dragged into the public square, beaten with clubs and then beheaded.

A hundred years earlier, the equally unfortunate bishop of Interamna, also named Valentine, had been arrested for secretly marrying Christian couples in violation of Roman law. He too was martyred on Feb. 14, as was another fellow named Valentine, in Africa. The day was designated Valentine's Day by Pope Gelasius I in A.D. 496.

It's doubtful old Gelasius would be thrilled to learn that, in the 21st century, these martyrs are remembered through observance of a holiday that exists primarily as a means by which young men obtain premarital sex through the purchase of jewelry and expensive dinners. But then again, he had more in mind than saints when he made Feb. 14 a holiday. He was also cleverly attempting to repurpose a Roman holiday that fell on Feb. 15, upon which young men would randomly choose the names of young ladies to be their dates to the bacchanal. (In that regard, it seems the pagan conception of the holiday has triumphed.)

And Feb. 14, it has long been believed in Europe, is the day on which birds begin to pair (it is halfway through the second month of the year). As Chaucer wryly observed in "Parliament of Foules":

"For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate."

Today, in America, we've added our own twist to the Valentine's Day ritual: It is the day upon which we are subjected to countless articles in the mass media about aphrodisiacs. Champagne, chocolate, caviar and sushi, we are told year in and year out by the likes of Mademoiselle and Cosmopolitan, are the "keys to a smokin' Valentine's Day." We're inundated with specious quotes from scientists willing to say anything to get their names in print by agreeing that 10 particular food products will "spice up your love life."

Don't get me wrong, I love champagne, chocolate, caviar and sushi (though sushi isn't particularly filling so I usually need to supplement my meal with a couple of slices of pizza afterwards). And I love holidays, too, because they typically involve eating with reckless abandon. Thanksgiving is chief among the feasting holidays and is a personal favorite, though Christmas (I'd consider converting if I could be assured of frequent roasted goose), Chanukah (biblically mandated fried food), Independence Day (cookouts), St. Patrick's Day (corned beef with cabbage) and even Passover (with the exception of the no-bread thing) have their charms. Indeed, any self-respecting fat guy can think of an excuse for a feast even on Arbor Day. (Everything tastes better under a tree.) You might think Yom Kippur would be a problem, but think again. Fast days are actually the best. I can't speak for the Islamic community, though I imagine the nights of Ramadan are a hoot, but I assure you that breaking the fast after Yom Kippur is one of the only exercises of gluttony that won't trigger alarm in even the most weight-obsessed Jewish mother.

So you'd think that Valentine's Day, which involves both food and sex -- easily my two favorite things -- would be at the top of my list of all-time favorite holidays. But it's not. It's actually my least favorite holiday because, though it often involves dining and sex, it's usually dining and sex of a contrived, high-pressure, laden-with-expectations, neurotic sort. I'd just as soon skip it.

Sure, the list of aphrodisiacs routinely trotted out around this time of year consists of mostly delicious foods, but let's face it: They're amateur aphrodisiacs. To the extent these sorts of foods have any aphrodisiac effects at all, a proposition that is highly doubtful, they are nonetheless the least creative choices imaginable -- the aphrodisiac equivalents of the missionary position, the simulated-sex softcore porn on the Playboy Channel and candlelight dinner at a suburban hotel restaurant.

Not to mention, Valentine's Day is the absolute worst day of the year on which to dine out. It's a day of celebration, no doubt, in the restaurant industry, because price gouging is the order of the day. You pay twice as much money for the exact same meal you could get on the 13th or the 15th, except that on the 14th you have fewer menu choices. Pity the poor guy who waits until the day before Valentine's Day to make a dinner reservation -- he's going to pay extra dearly, or spend the night alone. And don't get me started on all the unscrupulous florists selling near-dead weeds at a 600 percent markup.

Moreover, the documented, physical effect of these supposedly sexy foods on sexual performance is exactly zero. According to the scientists of the United States Food and Drug Administration, who couldn't have been more bored to be receiving yet another phone call from a journalist doing a Valentine's Day aphrodisiac story, "The reputed sexual effects of so-called aphrodisiacs are based in folklore, not fact. In 1989, the agency declared that there is no scientific proof that any over-the-counter aphrodisiacs work."

Not alcohol, which though known as a social lubricant (and therefore an inhibition lessener in some people) is actually a depressant. Not oysters, which got their reputation not through empirical studies but through their folkloric connection with Aphrodite (etymologically, the root of "aphrodisiac"), who came from the sea. Not chilies, which, though they can raise the heart rate and cause perspiration (similar to the body's physiological response to sexual excitement), have never been shown to trigger the libido. Not ginseng, the stimulant root that looks like the male genitals but has no more effect on sexuality than caffeine. And not even the highly touted rhinoceros horn, which also resembles the male member but ultimately will only help your sexual performance if you happen to be deficient in calcium or phosphorus.

To the extent that such foods, for example oysters, contain trace quantities of a particular mineral (zinc) that is speculatively associated with libido, the likelihood is that you'd have to eat a diet exclusively of oysters for 36 months in order to produce one additional erection. Viagra -- one of the only substances that can legally and scientifically make the claim to be a bona fide aphrodisiac -- seems a far more efficient choice.

If any foods do have an aphrodisiac effect, then, that effect is not in the realm of performance but rather in the realm of desire. That is to say, certain foods may trigger psychological associations that set the mood for sex. "The mind is the most potent aphrodisiac there is," says John Renner of the Consumer Health Information Research Institute, and he is of course saying the one thing the naive glossy magazines refuse to admit. They'd rather focus on specious explications of technique, as in "Ten Ways to Drive Him Wild."

And it may be that in extreme cases physical solutions are necessary to solve sexual dysfunction. But time and again, real people in the real world experience sexual desire more as a psychological phenomenon than as a physical one. That is to say, a wife can do all the softcore, Cosmo-endorsed things she likes: Buy lingerie from the Victoria's Secret catalog, burn aromatic candles from, dim the lights and lay out a spread of every aphrodisiac unearthed in a Lexis/Nexis search, but as soon as she pipes up about the husband's failure to take out the garbage, the moment will be ruined. Many wives, conversely, would much rather their strong, silent husbands share with them information of personal significance than buy them chocolates, which they typically throw out, throw up or eat in the closet anyway.

But even if psychology defines the limit of the effect of culinary aphrodisiacs, all hope is not lost. Foods that trigger sexual thoughts are always welcome in my home. The question is: What are they?

True excitement necessarily contains an element of surprise, so the first secret to unearthing sexy foods is to look for something unexpected. One caveat, though: In the early stages of a relationship, you probably don't want to get too creative. Dating is, at the outset, more about establishing your normalcy than it is about proving how offbeat you can be. So the newly in love are best advised not to eschew champagne and chocolate just yet. When your relationship is still on virgin ground, sometimes you've got no choice but to do the expected thing if that's what's going to get you laid. But for those in a mature, long-term relationship, surely you can come up with something a little more unexpected.

Now, as an example of what doesn't constitute the unexpected, take the recent Wall Street Journal recommendation, by that paper's resident wine-guru couple:

"Champagne is perfect for Valentine's Day, of course, but the problem is that your valentine is expecting it. So this year, have a glass of champagne and then surprise your valentine with a bottle of red Burgundy."

Boy, those guys are going to have a wild Valentine's Day. And so, I suppose, is anybody willing to accept romantic advice from the Wall Street Journal. No, I'm not talking about substituting Burgundy for champagne, mocha for chocolate or clams for oysters. I'm talking about a radical departure, a complete refiguring of what makes food sexy. And being able to do that depends on the realization that, for each person, the universe of trigger foods may be a very personal thing.

There is of course the option of a full-frontal assault: Any food that can be incorporated directly into the lovemaking process is at least arguably an aphrodisiac. Other erotic foods are those that are really messy and can be shared, because they help break down inhibitions. For example, I can think of few food experiences sexier than two lovers sharing cheese fondue. It's not only inherently sensual, but it also tastes really good. But for me, and I submit this is the case for most people, the truly powerful connections between food and sex are all about memories.

Childhood favorites, in particular, are comforting, reassuring and sneakily seductive. Any woman who wants to get my attention had best learn how to make fettuccine Alfredo that approaches my mother's. I'm also a sucker for anything with a fresh-baked aroma, a category limited not just to cookies and breads but also extending to pancakes and waffles, especially when doused in good maple syrup. But it's also important not to project: As soon as you confuse your memories with someone else's, you're done for. For each person, there are different foods that strike these deep chords, be they grilled cheese sandwiches, carrot cake, knishes, quesadillas or egg foo yung. Learn your lover's secret nostalgic favorites (a phone call to any living relative should do the trick -- ask for a recipe), and embrace them regardless of your own preferences, and you're well on your way to an unforgettable Valentine's Day.

Food is not by definition sexy, however, simply because someone loves it. There's a big difference between loving food and becoming aroused by it. Every red-blooded American loves a good roast suckling pig, but that sort of carnage doesn't exactly put most people in the mood. Odors, too, require careful monitoring: In direct contravention of the conventional wisdom about oysters and other shellfish, I strongly suggest staying away from any kind of seafood on account of its ability to generate unpleasant smells and -- worse -- bad breath. Nothing kills a sexual buzz quicker than halitosis. And no matter how much good food you have around, be it at home in a restaurant, don't eat a huge meal right before lovemaking. Eat it afterwards.

But in the end, the most powerful psychological aphrodisiacs of all may have nothing to do with food. When Mrs. The Fat Guy makes me fettuccine Alfredo, it's not the pasta per se that gets me hot and bothered; it's the gesture. The old adage about it being the thought that counts is especially true in matters of sexuality, where -- especially if you're in a relationship for the long haul -- sensitivity and generosity are among the most appealing traits a lover can possess. Technique can be taught; food can be bought; but underlying personality traits don't evolve much after age 6 -- just ask any first-grade teacher who has kept in touch with many former students.

And is it really beneficial to focus so heavily on aphrodisiacs and sex just because it's Valentine's Day? Sex centered around special occasions strikes me as utterly devoid of meaning and potentially unhealthy. When oral sex becomes a birthday present, when men give their wives Valentine's Day gift certificates for full-body massages, and when sex is traded for jewelry or otherwise commoditized, what does that say about the priorities within a relationship? Intimacy is the greatest gift of all, but it should never be given literally as a gift.

So you must all be wondering, then, what did Mrs. The Fat Guy get her husband for Valentine's Day?

Lunch. In Paris.

By Steven A. Shaw

Steven A. Shaw is a New York food critic.

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