At First Bite

aph-ro-dis'i-ac, n. Food or medicine believed to be capable of exciting sexual desire.

Since the beginning of civilization people have consumed various foods in the hopes of igniting passion or enhancing sexual pleasure. The earliest and most famous, perhaps, was the forbidden fruit that Eve offered Adam. At first bite their lives were never the same, nor ours.

The word "aphrodisiac" comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty who is said to have sprung from the sea on an oyster shell. So it's no wonder that oysters are one of the more popular foods thought to be aphrodisiacal. The original playboy, Casanova, is alleged to have consumed dozens of the raw mollusks each morning, but the more interesting story is that he supposedly ate them off of a naked woman's body. Seems to me virtually any food could be considered an aphrodisiac consumed in that context.

In the 1986 movie, "9 1/2 Weeks," stars Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger offered a good example of how, given the right circumstances and state of mind, any food can be an aphrodisiac.

Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge, authors of the book "Intercourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook," say that originally, the more rare an ingredient the more mystique it held, and the more mystique the more power it held over the libido. This theory of course was shot to hell with the advent of modern transportation, which made many things much less rare.

Another thought is that the more a food resembles a sex organ the stronger its aphrodisiacal powers, and that it will lend stamina and zest to the organ it resembles. It should come to no surprise, then, to learn that throughout history carrots, cucumbers, certain chili peppers and bananas have all been considered aphrodisiacs. I can't help but wonder, though, if the person that believes in these foodstuffs is not a little intimidated by them, or at the very least suffers from cucumber envy.

Another food that is often associated with romance is chocolate. The Aztecs and Mayans were the first to truly appreciate the benefits of this wonderful food by celebrating the harvest of cocoa beans with wild festivals and orgies. And Montezuma, the infamous Aztec ruler, was reputed to drink 50 cups of chocolate a day to stay virile enough to "maintain" his considerable harem. Chocolate, in fact, contains not only caffeine but also phenylethylamine. Phenylethylamine occurs naturally in trace amounts in the brain, but is present in peak amounts peak during orgasm. Chocolate makes everything better.

Honey is also mentioned frequently as being aphrodisiacal. As far back as the 5th century BCE, Hypocrites prescribed honey for sexual vigor. Supposedly, the modern word "honeymoon" is derived from an ancient tradition of newlyweds going into seclusion and consuming drinks heavily laced with honey every night until the first new moon of their marriage.

Alcohol has led to one of the biggest misconceptions in regards to sex drive. Yes, of course, plenty of one-night stands and other trysts have taken place after consumption of the innocuous looking liquid, but this isn't related to any aphrodisiac properties. Too much alcohol can actually lead to impotence, and furthermore it's a depressant. What alcohol does do is reduce inhibitions, so people will often do things under the influence that they may not otherwise. This alone can be enough for a timid person to loosen up a bit and enjoy themselves. (But it can also lead to horrendous morning-after regrets.)

The list goes on, of course. It's seemingly endless--black beans for fertility, avocados (once known as "ahuactl" by the Aztecs and translated literally as "testicle"), asparagus, celery, mushrooms and strawberries, just to name a few. But sadly there is not much scientific evidence to support claims that any foodstuff in itself is truly an aphrodisiac. Most of the theories are fueled by folklore. According to the FDA, chilies, curries and other spicy foods have often been considered aphrodisiacs because their physiological effects on a person are similar to the physical reactions experienced during sex--an increased heart rate and perspiration.

The truth is that many of the foods that are believed to be aphrodisiacs are in fact low in fat and high in vitamins and minerals. Thus a diet high in these foods will usually result in overall healthfulness, and when a person feels healthy they are also likely to have a higher sex drive. In their book "Aphrodisiac Cookery, Ancient and Modern," Greg and Beverley Frazier write that there is a direct link between a diet high in vitamins and minerals and sexuality. They go on to state that some of the most important vitamins and minerals for virility are A, B1, D, E, iodine, copper, iron and phosphorus. Not surprisingly vegetables and seafood are all good sources of these nutrients.

The one thing that nearly everyone will agree on is that what happens in your mind is more important than whatever food you eat. Mood, romance and setting--those are the true aphrodisiacs. To paraphrase sex expert Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the most important sex organ is not between your legs, it's between your ears.

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