Roman Emperors bartered them, weight by weight, for gold. Montreal's Ilene Polansky serves them in a shooter, a love potion - floating in cocktail sauce, fresh horseradish and vodka. And today, as in the Netherlands' `Golden 17th Century', they are the incarnation and king of aphrodisiacs. Blessed are the oysters. Ever since Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell as if on a flying carpet, love-starved individuals down the centuries have considered oysters as their magic carpet to sexual prowess and eternal love.
Oysters, however, are only the forefathers of aphrodisiacs: with the globalization of cookery and the exploration of once-obscure communities, more and more local aphrodisiac ingredients are emerging, some originating from unremarkable plants and animals. A search in Amazon.com, the Internet's largest bookshop, yielded 41 books on sale containing aphrodisiac recipes.
The list of aphrodisiac ingredients reads like the list of trophies amassed by a hunter and explorer. Leeks. Black ants. Asparagus. Lizards. Celery. Leeches. Tiger parts. Pine nuts. King eiders in Greenland. Truffles. Whales' "ambergris." Snake blood. Radishes. Hemp seed.
Most aphrodisiac foods fall into two broad categories. The first category is based along the belief of traditional societies' "law of similarity." Think of the Rhino horn or deers' antlers or animal genitalia in general - all considered aphrodisiac because they look like aroused human genitalia, especially men's. The second category encompasses those foods that nourish our sexually-obsessed imagination: hot and spicy foods, including pepper and ginger and garlic and nutmeg and saffron and cardamom, because they trigger a physiological response akin to sexual arousal, panting, flushing, eyes watering. This is nothing but wishful-thinking, as sexual as the sexual fire of people at the gym, heaving, groaning, gasping, wiggling their wobbly body parts.
So like Aphrodite herself aphrodisiac foods are superstition and legend. No scientific proof backs the proclaimed aphrodisiac properties.
John Renner, founder of the US Consumer Health Information Research Institute, says: "The mind is the most potent aphrodisiac there is. It's very difficult to evaluate something someone is taking because if you tell them it's an aphrodisiac, the hope of a certain response might actually lead to an additional sexual reaction."
The United States Food and Drug Administration goes a step further: they send legally threatening letters to companies advertising aphrodisiacs.
Dismiss aphrodisiac foods then? I use aphrodisiac ingredients frequently, because they include some of the tastier ingredients. And some are expensive delicacies: I wish I could afford oysters or snails or truffles more often. Which would-be lover would not warm up over a romantic dinner of truffles and oysters?
One way to a lover's heart, and bed, is through his/her mouth. A candle-lit, music-in-the-background, dinner accompanied by wine is the perfect opening to an intimate evening. The act of eating good food together - eating being a hedonistic indulgence, whether aphrodisiac or not - is like foreplay.