On the subject of aphrodisiacs, I have always been something of a skeptic. If you don't want to ravish him or, worse yet, he doesn't want to ravish you, chances are that knocking back a couple of membraneous pearls isn't going to change either of your minds. That being said, the blood-coloured rivers of lust had all but dried out between a certain young gentleman and myself. We were no longer tearing at each other's clothes in elevators, alleys and theatres. Friday nights found us playing Boggle or blinking helplessly at one another from opposite ends of the couch. I am not one to writhe in the desert of a stifled libido for long. Something had to be done. And if indeed Aphrodite had a culinary trick or two up her toga, I was ready to throttle her for them.
So, cynical but aglow with the mad hope to which only the desperate cling, I bought a book I had been making fun of for years, an aphrodisiac gastronomy text called Intercourses. Perhaps you've seen its coffee-table cover: a naked woman, eyes closed in what must be unspeakable ecstasy, her crotch exploding strawberries red as her lips. Each chapter showcases a different source of delectation-asparagus, figs, oysters, artichokes-which the authors, Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge, poetically contextualize as teeming with erotic properties just waiting to be unleashed through fire and art. A myriad of recipes follows. Accompanying each are testimonials from couples all across America who have sampled the gastronomical fireworks-with sexy results. These were promising: "My husband couldn't get enough of it! He liked the sauce too," raves Diane, gushing over husband Dave's reaction to her strawberry sauce over grilled fish. Happy Diane! Happy Dave! Wretched Veronica. Reader, to what loathsome depths had I sunk.
It took me a week to plan the menu. While my beau read science fiction on his side of the bed, I madly flipped through those glossy pages on mine. I was in search of anything: an elixir, a magic bean that would sharpen his dulled claws and cloud his eye once more with lust. But the edible essence of Eros was nowhere to be found in this book, filled though it was with placid pastas, artful salads and intriguingly sauced meats. Intercourses does list seventeen aphrodisiacs and eighty-five recipes, but it all seemed to fall short of the mysticism, potency and dark magic that, to my mind, the myth of the aphrodisiac demands.
For a brief trembling while, I pondered making the asparagus frittata, which apparently worked wonders on dear Jeff of Memphis: "The meal seemed to energize my lower chakras, stirring their depths to rise with impelling, creative force." Indeed, I have a visual. But in the end, I opted for the asparagus-prosciutto rolls, a green salad of my own invention with slivers of allegedly aphrodisiac avocado thrown in (one can't be too careful) and pasta in a strawberry cream sauce, the berry being the bearer of the sex juice in this dish. I had never heard that strawberries were capable of wielding wily Cupid's arrow. Still, I couldn't resist this recipe's ambrosial strangeness-it seemed to stand out among the predictable but pleasant platitudes of the other entrées. It was a risk, as my Eros is a steak-and-potatoes man. But the dish claimed to have curled the toes of meat-loving Jeremy from Nacogdoches, Texas. So strawberry pasta it was.
For the coup de grâce, grilled fresh figs drizzled with honey and topped with a crumble of toasted nuts. A double thrust of Aphrodite's tongue via the honey and the figs. "Ineffably decadent. Use only with experienced lovers," caution the authors. Chocolate hazelnut truffles would follow, the obvious beast awakener being cocoa. And libations. Fountains and fountains would I pour down our sex-parched throats.
After hours of fighting and shopping and glaring-at each other, the cashier, the food and the heavens-the former fire of my loins and I drove home, both of us gazing steely-eyed at the road.
According to the book, it is not only the meal but also its preparation that gets one's chakras in a twist: "It seems to me that the anticipation of an aphrodisiac meal is oftentimes aphrodisiac enough. My significant other and I couldn't stop smiling and casting knowing glances at each other the whole time we were preparing the meal."
This, I'm afraid, was not our experience. After hours of fighting and shopping and glaring-at each other, the cashier, the food and the heavens-the former fire of my loins and I drove home, both of us gazing steely-eyed at the road. Evening came and I put on my apron. While he clacked away at his computer, I soberly hacked up the chocolate into black shards and mashed it up in the food processor with marzipan, coffee and Frangelico. Out of the soft blob this made, I shaped mini blobs by rolling bits betwixt my palms. I dusted my black pearls with cocoa powder. And I was done. The truffles were very enjoyable and meditative to make. But then I am mistress of my kitchen.
He played video games while I prepared the appetizer. The asparagus-prosciutto rolls are, according to Hopkins and Lockridge, "easy and delicious." The recipe calls for blanching the spears, then drenching them in a thick vinaigrette of Dijon mustard, minced garlic, chives, olive oil and red-wine vinegar. After which you spread cream cheese (!?) onto slivers of prosciutto (tearing them in the process) and then stuff the ripped, cheese-heavy ham with the slippery spears. I did this doubtfully and alone, sipping the first of many flutes of champagne.
For the suspect strawberry pasta, one blends and strains a pint of the fruit and pours the scarlet red purée over hot, waiting spaghetti. Add to this carnage a basic butter-and-cream sauce, tossing well. Cover the lot with grated pecorino or Parmesan. Garnish with mint, if desired. Dead easy. Indeed, the benefit of the recipes in this book is how friendly they are to those of us less endowed with culinary gifts. I knew I had made everything, often against my better judgment, in perfect accord with the authors' saccharine suggestions. But still the burning question: would it work? I did my best in the way of ambience by forcing my darling into a suit and barking at him to light the candles. Corseted, fishnetted, perfumed and heeled, I emerged from the kitchen with two flutes of champagne bloodied with cassis and a bottle of cold white wine under my arm. I lowered the lights with my nose and told him to sit.
The strawberry pasta tasted like tepid yogourt over hot noodles. It was bland and unpleasantly pink, and I don't know why I ever thought it wouldn't be.
The asparagus rolls were supposed to be excellent "finger food." Hopkins and Lockridge did admit that "the vinaigrette might dribble on your chin and the asparagus might slip out to find itself a new home and the cream cheese might put a white dab on your rosy cheek," but claimed it was all in good fun. Well. It was messy-but not in the impish way that the authors winkingly imply. It was messy. The vinaigrette and the cheese were too much for those delicate slithery spears in their pale cases of ham-a vulgar fattening of what could have been a simple and splendid starter. My salad, brimming with avocado tears, was, of course, a revelation.
The strawberry pasta tasted like tepid yogourt over hot noodles. It was bland and unpleasantly pink, and I don't know why I ever thought it wouldn't be. Silently, we ate the hot cotton-candy-tinted gloop between gulps of champagne. Out of the corner of my eye, I kept vigil, praying the atrocity would soon take effect on him. "This is great," he lied. I smiled: "Isn't it?" Stifling back tears, I lit a cigarette in the massacred kitchen, grilled the figs and warmed the honey. I pulled the damned truffles out of the fridge. I threw it all down on the table, knowing in my heart we would never be horny again.
Then, there hatched a glimmer of hope. The truffles were fine, but never mind about that. The figs were good-in that guttural and purring kind of way that mellows and tingles even the rawest nerves. The trickle of warm amber honey was pure sex on the tongue. Slowly, slowly, our lips began to curl. Now. I'm not going to say that figs and a dollop of honey were responsible for the total restoration of our former animalism. It could also have been the tasteful film we watched later or the mere fact that I had given up-thereby relaxing enough for it to sort itself out. But our days and nights in the desert were done. And, in the wee hours, when I hummingly returned to our mangled bed, clutching the icy neck of a bottle of champagne and a bowl of strawberries, I inadvertently took the authors' sound, if slightly maudlin, advice: "Enjoy your lover as we most often do the strawberry-plain, and at its essence, beautifully ripe."
Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) has eaten, shamelessly or barely at all, in nearly every city in the world. She enjoys rain, hurling things against walls and walks on the beach. She lives beautifully in an undisclosed location at the edge of the known universe. There, she weeps her mascara tears, churns butter in the old style and listens to French accordion music.