Few human instincts are as compelling as the desire for sexual connection. Throughout time, the moment our basic survival needs -- food, shelter, protection from large, furry animals -- have been met, we've sought sexual union, both for procreation and pleasure. And universal though it may be, sex is still the most enduring enigma. It represents survival in its purest form, ensuring the continuation of the species. At its worst, sex is still fun; at its best, it's mind-blowing.
In spite of the intrigue and romance surrounding it, sexual arousal begins as a purely utilitarian interaction of body processes. In the brain, hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters work together to regulate stimulation and performance. The nervous system is engaged to interpret, classify and route signals. Meanwhile, the mechanics of sexual response -- erection in men, lubrication and swelling of genitals in women -- depends in part on the simple fact of adequate blood flow to the appropriate organs.
But sometimes, the blood -- and everything else -- fails to flow. That's when cultures throughout time have turned to lust-inspiring foods. Aphrodisiacs -- named for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of fertility, beauty and desire--were originally used to treat various sexual disorders, from impotence to infertility. Some of the most traditional are thought to be lust-provoking because of their resemblance to human genitalia. These range from the obvious, like bananas, cucumbers and asparagus, to the slightly more subtle, like peaches, apricots and raspberries, which are thought to resemble a woman's nipples. And some foods, like lobsters and figs, are simply sexier than others. Really, how sultry can you feel eating peanut butter or canned tuna?
Oysters, clams and mussels are considered representative of female genitalia, and lobster is thought to enhance the power and charms of men and promote fertility in women. So strong is the association between seafood and sexual desire that priests were long banned from eating fish, lest it interfere with their vows to celibacy.
Because they're symbolic of the female reproductive system, eggs are thought to not only increase desire but also to promote fertility; they're also high in lecithin and vitamin A, which are key in the production and secretion of sex hormones. Bananas are legendary as aphrodisiacs, for their shape, size and sensuous, creamy texture.
Nuts and seeds, because they're part of the reproductive mechanisms of plants, have also been considered aphrodisiacs. Almonds are thought to increase fertility, and the aroma is said to induce passion in women, and pine nuts have been used since Medieval times to boost libido. Nuts and seeds are also high in vitamin E, essential for transporting sufficient oxygen to the genitalia; vitamin E also affects the anterior lobe of the pituitary gland, which controls sexual organs and functions.
Figs have enjoyed a versatility unmatched by any other aphrodisiac food, being compared alternately to the penis, vagina, testicles and anus. The subtle swell and fold of an apple is thought to be uniquely feminine, and Hindus applied mashed apple, honey and pepper to the male genitals to provoke amorous liaisons. Asparagus, with its distinctly phallic shape, has long been considered an aphrodisiac. The avocado tree was termed "Ahuacuatl" ("testicle tree") by the Aztecs, who thought the fruit hanging in pairs looked like testicles. Truffles, with their musky aroma and mysterious folds, have been considered aphrodisiacs since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
A few foods, like chocolate, red wine and champagne, contain chemical compounds that, in the appropriate quantities and circumstances, can incite passion. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, boosts serotonin, the "feel-good" neurotransmitter, and contains phenylethylamine, a chemical in the brain that occurs in higher concentrations when you're in love.
And some of the most legendary aphrodisiacs are considerably less appealing. Bird's nest soup from the island of Borneo is prized for the lust-inspiring qualities of the swallow spittle that holds it together. Elizabethan legend has it that when chased through the woods, a beaver will bite off his genitals, fling them at the pursuer and race away. Because the animal's genitals are said to grow back, they are thought to have magical sexual properties. Durian fruit from Malaysia is a lumpy, football-sized fruit that costs upwards of $25 a pound and smells very much like rotten fish. Nonetheless, the flesh inside is sweet and velvety, and is a highly regarded aphrodisiac.
If you're hungry for love, and none is forthcoming, incite passion with a new flame--or restore amour with a steady lover--with a meal based on legendary aphrodisiac foods. Keep it light; no one feels sexy with a bloated stomach. Start with small, simple appetizers: fresh figs stuffed with goat cheese and roasted almonds, steamed and chilled asparagus wrapped with thin slices of picked ginger. For a main course, try a lobster and avocado salad served on a bed of arugula leaves dressed with truffle oil and sprinkled with pine nuts. Or go for the aphrodisiac standard: oysters. Steam them and serve with cocktail sauce or drawn butter. If you're not so hard core, try Oysters Rockefeller, made with Pernod, fresh spinach, tarragon and mood-enhancing basil instead of tarragon.
To finish, serve chocolate truffles, Bananas Foster made with honey, or fresh raspberries with whipped cream, and see where the evening takes you. What do you have to lose--except, maybe, a good night's sleep?