"Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke." ~Margo Channing, All About Eve
It started with Eve and the apple. Forbidden fruit, the wide-eyed promise of a naked truth eternal. A smile, a bite, the taste of seduction is always sweet.
The secret to pleasure lies not only in the carnal, but also in the ephemeral. Think Proust and his episode with a few crumbs of madeline as they touched his palate, "a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it? "
He is transported instantaneously through the power of taste to a time and place that his conscious self had forgotten. That place of abandon where the fleeting moment lives suspended waiting only to be revived with the tip of a tongue, a flare of the nostril, a firing off of ganglionic overdrive...
My relationship with food has always been intimate, and creating a meal for someone, especially a lover, floods me with a sensation of sinuous excess, as the possibilities abound. I am steeped in a luxuriant world of aromatics, spices and unguents. Being tactile, I manhandle my food. Not for me the salad tong, or the garlic mincer. I run my fingers through every leaf I toss, feeling the weight of it to determine when it is adequately saturated with a dressing. I chop everything by hand. Meat is seasoned only after I have rubbed my herbs & spices in, kneading its fibers, willing it to absorb my flavorings. I would never insert a cold metal thermometer into a fine piece of beast to check for doneness, I use my olfactory senses and my fingers; sniffing it, prodding it, touching it- experience teaches me when a particular cut and type of meat is ready for consumption. Just as in lovemaking, there is no substitute for hands-on knowledge. You either have it, or you don't.
My husband was aghast when I told him I was going to write about food and sex. He pictured me describing tawdry scenes of my former sexual exploits: the champagne bath that preceded the first time I climaxed, the honey-coating of my skin, the unique and varied ways one can use a cornucopia of nature's bounty to enhance and broaden one's culinary horizons in bacchanalian wonder.
There's no need for such graphic exploitation of food. Eating itself becomes a temple of the sensual. The sumptuous made sublime. Let me explain to you as I did to him.
For many people, eating sensuously is all about texture:
Silken, unctuous foods, foods anointed with a holy oil that feel like ritual sacraments as they glide over your tongue, coating your palate with their essence. Creamy risottos, viscous honeys, delicacies that melt or glide, caramel, custard. Some of these foods take on anthropomorphic qualities that imbue them with eroticism. Consider MFK Fisher's oyster. Or the egg scene from Jûzô Itami's, Tampopo, a favorite of mine and my husband's. A fetishist's dream...
Sigmund Freud explains that fetishism is based on the castration of the woman phallus. No "male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals". For Freud, the "fetish is a penis-substitute" to be precise for the "woman's (mother's) phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego". The boy refuses to accept the fact that a woman has no penis: "for if a woman can be castrated then his own penis is in danger; and against that there rebels part of his narcissism which Nature has providentially attached to this particular organ". The fetish "remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a safeguard against it" The organs or objects selected as a substitute for the penis do not always act as a symbol thereof. When the "fetish comes to life, so to speak, some process has been suddenly interrupted . . . interest has been held up at a certain point – what is possibly the last impression before the uncanny traumatic one is preserved as a fetish"
Itami takes it one step further and combines the phallus with the egg … literally. The sustained exchange of a perfectly formed egg yolk, between two lovers' mouths, back and forth, back and forth, sliding from mouth to mouth, both moaning with the heightened pleasure of a most delicate penetration into each other's oral cavities, the sexual tension heightened by the need to restrain their excitement so as to prolong it until the climatic breaking of the egg yolk (which then runs from the woman’s mouth and down her chin) - a sublime moment.
For others, it is visual...
When someone gazes at an object we say that he devours it with his eyes, "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active / male and passive / female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to - be - looked - at - ness.” (Mulvey in Evans & Hall 1973 p 383). Consider the suggestiveness of the lollipop-licking Lolita, the slow peeling and consumption of a banana, the way one laps at an ice cream cone. Contrast that with your average fast food commercial and the sight of someone chomping on a Big Mac or gorging themselves on a slice of pizza, giving the diner all the glamour of a jungle beast tucking into an antelope. Licking, on the other hand, is enticing to watch, almost ethereal by comparison - like an angel of Eros enjoying her daily dose of ambrosia.
How about juicy, self-contained foods that use your fingers, preferably while making contact with your lips, especially those capable of being eaten in one or two bites? Think of soft, pouty lips wrapping themselves around a fresh strawberry, a red cherry, the ripest fig, or piece of ahi nigiri. The light tooth-grazing consumption of the tender leaves of steamed artichokes also falls into this category of food come-ons.
Many cultures tend to reckon shape with sexual aphrodisiacs. Take the obvious likeness of avocados, apples, bananas, eggs, asparagus spears, ginseng, zucchini, oysters, mangoes or even the more far-flung rhinoceros horn to their sexually reproductive anatomical counterparts and you can come up with an interesting, if somewhat eclectic menu.
Some foods, over time, have been endowed with magical, potent sexual powers for their ability to excite rather than their physical characteristics. My four favorites: chocolate, champagne, caviar and chilis fall into this category.
Dark chocolate with its LDL lowering stearic acid, mood-elevating theobromine, "love chemical" inducing phenylethylamine, pleasure enhancing serotonin and energy boosting caffeine was considered not only an aphrodisiac but also quite the health elixir by the Aztecs and the Mayans and was revered as a food of the gods; 2000 years before more recently undergoing its latest health food status.
The hot spice of chili peppers with its tear inducing capsciacin mimics the feelings of arousal by elevating the blood pressure & body temperature leaving you flushed, moist & panting.
Champagne has always been the wine of love & celebration with bubbles that tickle your tongue as well as your fancy. The alcohol in it is a powerful relaxant, allowing you to shed your inhibitions (if not your clothing).
The goddess of love, Aphrodite, was born from the sea, so all of the sea's creatures were said to be endowed with her aphrodisiac powers. It doesn't hurt that most seafood contain prodigious quantities of the mineral zinc which is known to be an effective nutrient for the erotically-challenged. Caviar is sturgeon roe. The many eggs of caviar also represent fertility; procreation and the propagation of the species, of course, has always been the most powerful catalyst for the sex act. Just ask Darwin. Money is a pretty good conductor of sexual electricity, too, and caviar costs lots of it which would likely add to its romantic allure.
Of course, too much of anything, champagne and caviar included, can douse the most ardent fire, so I advocate a little discretion in all things edible. While moderation may not seem to fan the flames of molten passion, it's always good to be a little hungry for something more....
Asparagus, Artichoke and Shiitake Risotto
I have chosen this dish as an illustration of a sensuous food for several reasons. There is just something so remarkably satisfying and sensual about the creamy rice texture once it has lapped up all that savory stock and the Parmigian-Reggiano has been delicately melted and laced throughout. The earthy flavors of the mushrooms, asparagus, and artichoke all meld together beautifully. The individual ingredients themselves are foods with sexual and/or romantic symbolism. The making of risotto, itself, is a rather languid affair, it is not a dish you can just slam, bam, thank you ma'am... Risotto requires your true devotion, unwavering commitment and the firm grip of patience. It’s a good 25-30 minute process that needs a dedicated and loyal hand to lovingly stir in the savory stock one cup at a time while it’s slowly absorbed into the rice. Of course, you can certainly invite your lover into the kitchen with you as you find yourself bent over that hot stove. Give him (or her) a glass of sauvignon blanc and carte blanche.
The word asparagus comes from the Greek and it refers to any young, tender shoot that can be eaten. Asparagus was prized by the ancient Greeks over 2500 years ago. It was considered to be a cleansing and healing herb and used it for many medicinal purposes. The Romans in their turn also prized asparagus and cultivated it (the Greeks wildcrafted it) and spread it throughout Europe on their conquests. Emperor Augustus coined the term ''“velocius quam asparagi conquatur”'' which means to do something quicker than you can cook asparagus. Similar to our phrase “two shakes of a lambs tail”. So much did the Romans prize asparagus, that in the first century, runners took asparagus from the Tiber River valley to the Alps so that it could be frozen and thus preserved for the Feast of Epicurus.
King Louis XIV had asparagus grown in his greenhouses so that he could enjoy it year round, he dubbed asparagus the King of Vegetables. It was also popular in England and other parts of Europe and colonists brought it to America where Native Americans used it for medicine.
But most interestingly (and pertinent to this essay) asparagus was considered a phallic symbol banned from girls schools in the 19th century, but Victorian women were taught to detect the scent of this aphrodisiac on their husbands urine- a sure sign that he was behaving improperly!
Artichoke's Latin name - Cynara - comes from a mythological tale about a beautiful young maiden named Cynara, with whom the Greek god Zeus fell hopelessly in love. Unable to persuade Cynara to leave her mother and her earthly home to become a goddess, Zeus became so enraged that he transformed her into an artichoke, forever capturing her tender heart at the center of a protective crown of thorny leaves.
The shiitake mushrooms have umami. Literally translated, the Japanese word umami means “delicious taste” or “pleasant savory taste” and was coined by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 when he discovered that monosodium glutamate, naturally present in some foods, reacts synergistically with some ribonucleotides, including Umami - how humans experience taste inosinate and guanylate. That sounds rather stale and scientific, but what it basically means is that chemicals in some foods interact in a special way to really impress your taste buds.
Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste difficult to describe. If a flavor had to be assigned to the term umami, it would be meaty and brothy with a tongue-coating savoriness that causes salivation... Enough said.
The proper pan makes all the difference. I am partial to Le Creuset 5 quart braiser. It is made from cast iron, enamel-coated, shallow-edged and wide which allows for even cooking as well as the relative rapid absorption of the liquid. However any heavy-gauged 4-5 sauce pot or Dutch oven will do.
- 5 cups chicken broth (40 fl ounces)
- 1 cup water
- 1 pound thin to medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/4 inch thick slices, leaving tips 1 1/2 inches long
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
- 3/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps cut into 1/4 inch thick slices
- 2 large fresh artichoke hearts, cut into 1/4 inch thick slices, prepared*
- 2 shallots, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (10 ounces)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine (preferably the one you are drinking)
- 2 ounces finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 cup, though I used half)
Bring broth and water to a boil in pot. Add asparagus and cook, uncovered, until crisp-tender, 2 to 4 minutes (depending on the thickness of the stalks). Transfer asparagus with a slotted spoon to a large bowl of ice and cold water to stop cooking, then drain and pat dry. Keep broth at a bare simmer, covered.
Heat oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a heavy saucepan over moderately high heat until foam subsides, then saute mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a bowl. Set aside.
Cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter in saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add wine and cook, stirring, until absorbed, about 1 minute.
Ladle in 1 cup simmering broth and cook at a strong simmer, stirring, until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Continue simmering and adding broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently and letting each addition be absorbed before adding next, until rice is just tender and looks creamy, 18 to 20 minutes. (Save leftover broth for thinning.)
Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 cup cheese, remaining tablespoon butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Gently stir in asparagus, artichokes and mushrooms, then cover pan and let stand 1 minute. If desired, thin risotto with some of remaining broth. Serve immediately with remaining cheese on the side.
* Don't use canned hearts. Not for the risotto. They will be too acidic & disintegrate into the rice. My favorite artichoke heart preparation is to remove all the outer leaves, the hairy choke and stem of a whole artichoke, leaving just the heart. Cut the heart into 1/4 inch slices and toss it immediately in a bowl filled with water acidulated with the juice of one lemon. Make sure each and every edge, angle and side of the hearts gets coated in lemon juice, or they will brown very quickly. In a small pot, boil water with a good glug or two of white wine, a splash of white vinegar, a smashed garlic clove and/or a bay leaf. Drop in the artichoke hearts with all of their lemon juice, and simmer them for about 10 minutes, or longer if needed for them to become tender. Drain and set them aside.
This recipe will feed Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (if you're into that sort of thing) each a main-course serving.