Chow Town

Valentine’s Day is a good time to look at food as an aphrodisiac

Oysters have long thought to be aphrodisiacs.
Oysters have long thought to be aphrodisiacs.

I’ve never had much of an opinion on Valentine’s Day.

I know plenty of people — all right, plenty of men — who complain that the whole thing is just a fabrication, a holiday “created” to sell more cards, chocolate and flowers. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m sure hometown Hallmark isn’t complaining.

These St. Valentine’s naysayers don’t buy into the romantic hype and never will. As for me, I’m fine with ponying up for a card, a dozen roses and some chocolate truffles for Valentine’s Day, just as long as I don’t have to suffer through the crowds, mediocre food and poor service that often accompany dining out on Feb. 14.

I’ll gladly treat my lovely wife to a meal out before or after the holiday. But on the day itself I’d rather have a root canal.

Valentine’s Day is a good jumping off point for an interesting subject: food as aphrodisiac. The concept has been around for nearly as long as mankind, and while it appears there are few scientific facts to back up the fanciful theories, it’s always a fun topic to explore.

Sullivan’s Steakhouse apparently thought so, too, offering an Aphrodisiac Menu through part of February, kicking off with a “blindfolded” tasting event Friday night. That’s right, think “50 Shades of Grey” meets Valentine’s Day and let your imagination wander. I’ll get to that in just a moment. First, how about a little background on the idea of certain foods and their romantic-themed qualities?

According to the Cambridge World History of Food, aphrodisiacs were first sought out as a remedy for various sexual anxieties, including what we now regularly diagnose as erectile dysfunction and low testosterone levels. However, back then, they weren’t worried about pleasure. This was a matter of procreation.

All manner of cultures and societies weighed in on the matter. It’s thought the ancient Greeks were the first to observe foods with specific relation to the sexual impact they might have. This would have been about the first century. Before that, food was more about nourishment, with the obvious correlation that a lack of nourishment creates a loss of libido and can result in lower fertility rates. There was a lot less food then than there is now, so food and nourishment were important on multiple levels.

Before the Greeks, early societies made more rudimentary judgments. Again, I turn to the Cambridge World History of Food, which states that substances that represented “seed or semen,” such as bulbs, eggs and snails, were considered inherently to have sexual powers, while other types of foods were considered “stimulating” by their “physical resemblance to genitalia.” Bananas and figs anyone?

Each culture seems to have had its favorites when it came to which foods were the most highly prized for inducing and improving sex, but I have to believe much of that directly relates to the types of foods they had available.

The Aztecs, for example, were big on chocolate, which they referred to as “the nourishment of the gods.” It certainly helped that chocolate was widely cultivated where the Aztecs lived. Lucky them.

Carrots, which have their origins in the Middle East, were highly prized there. The phallus-shaped carrot has been thought of as a stimulant from ancient times. Its shape is certainly a primary component. The high vitamin and beta-carotene content provide a more modern justification for its power as an aphrodisiac.

Then there are oysters. I’ve always felt whoever had the daring to crack one open and slurp it down deserved whatever aphrodisiac qualities oysters may hold. Alas, there’s more to it than that.

Back to the Cambridge World History of Food. “Oysters were documented as an aphrodisiac food by the Romans in the second century A.D, where the ‘wanton ways’ of women were described following their ingestion of wine and giant oysters. Others believe it was the oyster’s resemblance to female genitals. The reality is oysters are extremely nutritious and high in protein.” Well, that’s no fun!

I could go on, but the Cambridge guide lists more than two dozen foods considered to be aphrodisiacs. There’s no way I can get to them all.

You’ll find many of the items at Sullivan’s blindfolded event Friday and on its Aphrodisiac Menu, which I’m assuming you are allowed to see as well as eat. The menu will be featured from Jan. 30 through Feb. 20. Cost of the dinner Friday night is $69. Call 913-345-0800 for reservations, and remember to put the blindfold on after you arrive.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons.