The Chef as Magician In Love’s Kitchen, by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Feb. 8, 1995

“Late in the 17th century, the Spanish Inquisition in Mexico put several women on trial on a heinous charge. Discarding their civilized ways, the Inquisitor charged, these women had indulged in the drinking of chocolate and, under its influence, had consorted with the Devil himself. This accusation surprised no one, for the dark, mysteriously seductive drink of the cocoa plant had been famous since the time of the Aztecs as a powerful incantatory tool.

To some modern sensibilities, attributing such power to chocolate may seem ridiculous. But in a few days, untold numbers of Americans will observe Valentine’s Day by presenting a symbol of their love in the form of — what else? — chocolates. When they do, they will be paying unwitting homage to the power of food as magic.

With its dual character as both a necessity of daily life and a delight to the senses, food has a long history as a tool of sorcery. This tradition originated in the days when the physical world was considered merely an imperfect reflection of the spiritual world, and every mundane act was therefore rife with cosmic implications.

In those times, for example, the ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ enjoyed great popularity. This precept held that the physical shape of any particular object was a divine clue to its proper use. To understand the purpose or effect of a particular food, therefore, one merely had to figure out what other objects it most closely resembled.

In this atmosphere of mystic cause and effect, it is no surprise that a cook who could go into the kitchen with a handful of plain ingredients and emerge with intricately flavored, soul-satisfying dishes was often considered something akin to a magician. Almost always, these sorcerers of the stove and the fire were women. Grinding and mixing and tasting and stewing, they truly did perform a kind of alchemy, using their intimate knowledge of ingredients and cooking techniques to create wonderful meals. With public power usually kept firmly in the grasp of men, many women found in this sphere of human activity a means through which to exert influence, gain power and even express deep feelings.

Not surprisingly, the men who held the reins of power in those days did not always consider this a particularly positive development and were careful to keep it from getting out of hand. Their disapproval was reflected not only in formal censures like putting women on trial for such outrages as eating chocolate, but also in the creation of cultural icons like the standard image of witches: rat-haired women stirring giant, steaming kettles.

But witches and their supernatural counterparts in other cultures were in fact often purveyors of hidden wisdom, and many of the ‘old wives’ tales’ about the effects of food on the body emerged from their cauldrons. Among these, none has had a longer or more wide-ranging effect than the idea that foods can be used magically to spur sexual passion.

Over the centuries thousands of foods, from newly harvested wheat to sea slugs to onions, came to be considered aphrodisiacs. Given the Doctrine of Signatures, it is not surprising that phallic-shaped foods like bananas, eggplants and carrots were believed to rouse sexual passion, along with foods thought to resemble female sexual organs, like oysters and figs.

Nuts and eggs, as sources of life and fecundity, also joined the aphrodisiac larder, as did rare and expensive foods like saffron, caviar and those exotic imports from the New World, potatoes and tomatoes. The ancient Romans even ascribed aphrodisiac properties to arugula, ritually planting it at the base of statues of Priapus, the old Greek god of male procreative power.

Like many other tales nurtured by women in kitchens, fields and gardens over the centuries, aphrodisiac lore may well cloak scientific truths.

The most obvious is that a well-nourished person is far more likely to succumb to passion; one hunger satisfied, he or she is ready to turn to another.

On a more technical level, it is also possible that the chemical makeup of certain foods may actually excite sexual passion in some way. Coffee, for example, contains the stimulant caffeine; asparagus contains several diuretic chemicals, and chocolate has rather large amounts of phenylethylamine, a stimulant very similar to chemicals released by the human body during sex.

Mostly, though, food can function as an aphrodisiac because eating is not only about survival but also about sensuality, enjoying the physical side of life — although it remains to be seen whether you will want to consort with the Devil after indulging in the lush complexity of chocolate, the oozy richness of figs or the briny freshness of oysters.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “The Chef as Magician In Love’s Kitchen,” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Feb. 8, 1995

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