Are oysters and champagne really turn-ons?
The man who called Max on Main, a restaurant in Hartford, Conn., certainly must have thought so. He ordered a $100 bottle of vintage Dom Perignon champagne and a dozen bluepoint oysters for a woman friend eating at the restaurant last week. The gifts arrived at her table courtesy of a "secret admirer."
"She said thanks. There was a weird look on her face," recalls Brian Spilecki, the restaurant's executive chef.
How this story ended, he doesn't know. But it is part of a long legacy of belief in aphrodisiacs, a word that comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
From the rough caves of prehistory to the sophisticated dining rooms of today's bistros, men and women have consumed certain foods to arouse or increase sexual desire. A lot will likely be consumed Monday, Valentine's Day.
Oysters, champagne, figs, shellfish, mushrooms, chocolate, eels, vanilla root, ginger, rabbit, prunes, caviar, oranges, chili peppers -- all are among the many foods considered aphrodisiacs.
Some supposedly stir the blood or stimulate the senses.
Ginger is said to warm the body, firing up the loins. Chocolate, rich in carbohydrates, gives quick bursts of energy that can have amorous advantages. As for champagne, well, 19th-century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin expressed its magic best.
"Burgundy makes you think of silly things," he wrote. "Bordeaux makes you talk about them, and champagne makes you do them."
Barbara P. Klein, professor of food and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says, "I don't think there's anything which has a specific effect on sexual prowess or desire."
There's not much solid research on aphrodisiacs out there, but Ms. Klein wonders how you'd go about it.
"Do you put two people in a room and feed them a lot of chocolate until they start running around?" she asks, laughing. "I have trouble thinking of what the control would be."
Modern medical science, however, recognizes two types of aphrodisiacs: cantharidin and yohimbine.
Cantharidin come from the dried blister beetle known popularly as Spanish fly. This drug, reputed to be a favorite of the Marquis de Sade, quickens the heart rate, produces better blood flow and engorges the genitalia. But it damages the kidneys and can be fatal.
Yohimbine is derived from the bark of the yohimbe tree, found in Central Africa. Scientists say any change in performance is through suggestion, because a stimulatory effect is reached only with toxic doses.
Jeanne Rose of San Francisco, herbalist, aroma therapist and author of 13 books, says the most powerful aphrodisiac is the brain.
It seems everyone agrees on that.
"Your brain is your most important sex organ," says Lonnie Barbach, a San Francisco psychologist and author who specializes in relationships and sexual issues. "So much of sex is in your mind."
Kenneth N. Hall, professor of nutritional science at the University of Connecticut, says there's a strong psychological aspect to the use of food as aphrodisiacs.
"If you believe it will have an effect, it will have an effect," he says.
Certain foods, like chocolate, are intrinsically sexy. They feel so good going down.
"Chocolate has a great sensual feel in the mouth. It's sensual, smooth, sexual," says Galdino F. Pranzarone, a psychology professor at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.
Social conditioning also plays a part in the lore and allure of aphrodisiacs. From ancient times, men have sought to better their sexual reputations, and women have tried to attract or keep a man.
Folk medicine has long singled out certain foods and herbs as tonics that boost general health as well as sexuality, such as the Chinese use of the ginseng root.
L Also, the Aztecs drank chocolate to give themselves a boost.
Folklore and superstition has highlighted other foods.
In Europe, would-be lovers pinned bay leaves to their pillows on the night before Valentine's Day in hopes of seeing their future spouse in their dreams.
Actually, when it comes to sex and food, the surest path to happiness is the dullest.
Medical and nutrition experts say eating a sensible diet of low-fat foods, lean meats and lots of fruit and vegetables will keep you fit for a variety of activities, including sex.
But no food can ignite love, insists Tad Graham-Handley, director of the Connecticut Culinary Institute in Farmington, Conn.
"My opinion has always been, if there's a spark, there's a spark," he says. "It doesn't matter if there are two cheeseburgers, lobster Fra Diavolo or yohimbe bark."
Why, then, do people believe in aphrodisiacs?
"Because they want to. It's magic! It's amore!" he says.