(See also: magic, elves, winning lottery tickets, and other elusive dreams.)
The word derives from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and sex. And as with many potential aphrodisiacs, her origins prove disturbing on second glance. Conventional wisdom says she simply appeared in the ocean waves on a roomy scallop shell, but Hesiod’s Theogony reveals a gorier birth: the goddess of sexual desire was born where the severed testicles of the god Uranus were hurled into the sea. Uranus suffered this loss during a heated coupling with his rebellious wife, Gaea, who had exhorted their son Cronus to ambush his father with a sickle. After years of bobbing in the sea water and generating much white foam, the testicles were gone forever but the goddess swam ashore.
Now consider the famed Spanish fly, or cantharides, an erotic treat derived from the pulverized bodies of the North African blister beetle. As the Marquis de Sade and his unlucky prostitute cohorts discovered, Spanish fly can deliver more than a strategically-placed rush of blood: it is an inflammatory agent, the effects of which include irritation, vomiting, and kidney damage. Spanish fly literally creates an itch one has to scratch. Frankly, when you think about it that way, you can buy a cream for that.
Humans have contributed other shortcuts to bliss, but they’re often just as graceless, even crude, whereas nature’s gentler aphrodisiacs are merely direct. Man-made Viagra and other “ED” treatments go right to the source and engorge it; the commercials are all smug silver-fox boardroom types, waltzing or suggestively hurtling a football through the placid hole of a tire swing. We’ve also come up with pornography, of course, which walks a fine line between ridiculous and effective. A few shutters in the brain must close before a dirty film can work its magic, and the effort required to overlook the mullets and simian dialogue disqualifies porn as a transporting sex-enhancer.
Other so-called aphrodisiacs abound, it’s true, but I am sorry to tell you that you probably know them all: time and vacation and doors that lock, a little wine, a few tokes of good weed, but not a stuporous amount of either, a fig and a square of chocolate but not a belly-full. You want that first flush of heat, the hibiscus-flowering of blood vessels. You want the throb that fills the eardrums and everything else. And you can have it, but it’s a bit like when your mother told you Santa Claus is a spirit of generosity that lives in all our hearts. It’s not what we were hoping to hear.
Therefore, I suggest less time on the pharmaceutical and the order of Coleoptera and more on the culinary. Here the effect is not so much the medicinal magic and overriding urgency promised by a true aphrodisiac. It’s more suggestion. You present your companion with a reminder, silent but absolutely clear, of what else you might be doing. Consider the classics: the plump, glistening salinity of a little oval oyster seems like something Prince might have sung about back in the days of songs like “Head” and “Soft and Wet.” A spear of asparagus is suggestively elegant, but disqualified by its disheartening tendency to droop. Some suggest carrots. Where’s the sensuous nuance in a woody pointed stalk? Forget the carrots. Look to the fig, which everyone agrees is so overtly sexual the Italians use the word for fig as slang for vagina. And wisely so: rounded at the hip, meltingly soft, velvety outside with a juicy flare of rich pink within; the tanginess of actual sex is here made textural in the tender pop of a fig’s soft-skinned seeds. It’s as frank as eye contact, so clearly a call to action that it’s enough to leave you speechless.
Just as bold but less commonly mentioned is the scent of the crab apple tree. They lined the streets of the neighborhood I grew up in, and each spring they flowered and released a tangy, humid, musky scent, enough to paralyze me beneath their branches, head surrounded by blossoms and feet by petals that had swooned to the dirt. The air was pollen-drenched and hazy with a fragrance somewhere between baking bread and overripe fruit and sweat and smashed, tart berries. Mentally, I couldn’t quite merge that scent’s deliciousness with its slight unpleasantness, its too-muchness, and the way it suggested an intense need for privacy—I could not define its allure back then. Now I can.
Nature can get away with such overt displays of sex and ferility. She probably has to: unaided, humans run around feeding each other dried beetles. Yet her most fetching overtures—and ours as well—are not pure sugar: think of chocolate’s dark notes and the slow heat it needs to melt; think of the faint leather-belt backnote in a mouthful of red wine. The finest aphrodisiacs utilize a little yin with their yang, and those that try for mere sweetness are missing the point. Just as Aphrodite herself came from someplace much darker, even bloodier, than a scallop shell, an effective aphrodisiac has a little bite, is just a bit uncomfortable. Like sex itself, it is unseemly in the wrong context—too moist, too salty, too fecund.
But why all the striving in the first place? Mere consciousness has never been quite enough for us as a species—we alter it any way we can. Mere pleasure is never quite enough, either—we want the overpowering thrum, the surge all the way out to the edge, but we’re always dismayed to find more than happiness out there. The ongoing search for aphrodisiacs is proof that when we hear a story like that of the god Uranus, no one thinks of the blood—just, with thrilling envy, of the pleasure of being so dazed and unwatchful with lust that it’s impossible to imagine the sickle.
Michelle Wildgen is the author of a novel, You’re Not You (Picador), and editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast (Tin House Books). Her AGNI essay will appear in Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex, edited by Ellen Sussman, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2008. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Best Food Writing, Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and elsewhere. She is senior editor of Tin House Magazine and an editor of Tin House Books. (updated 5/2008)