A Valentines Read: Aphrodite by Isabel Allende

the only truly infallible aphrodisiac… is love

At first glance you may expect Aphrodite to be a fictional retelling of the life of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, long associated with love and lust, beauty and passion. I know that I was probably thinking that when I first picked up this book at a Lifeline Bookfest sale. However, subtitled “the love of food and the food of love,” Aphrodite is actually a journey into the world of aphrodisiacs. Aphrodisiac is defined as “any substance or activity that piques amorous desire,” so Aphrodite is a very apt title, and perhaps a little more mysterious and alluring, than simply labelling the book All You Need to Know About Aphrodisiacs.

First published in 1998, the book has three main themes: an historical exploration of the use of aphrodisiacs, a detailed list and description of the various types, and a collection of recipes for the reader to try in their own amorous pursuits. Allende starts her journey with the Ancient Greek and Asian cultures and there are plenty of gross details that would be enough to turn anyone vegetarian or completely off the idea of love full stop. However, I did love Allende’s cutting remarks about patriarchal societies and their obsession with virility, as well as her use of the term “phallocracy.” She writes…

in every phallocracy, aphrodisiacs are very important…as soon as men conceived the curious idea that their superiority over women is based in that organ of their anatomy, they began to have problems

Aphrodisiacs were very important to men in ancient societies, of course, because the failure to produce an heir led to all sorts of ideas about a man’s masculinity and what not. Throughout history there has always been a long list of foods, drinks and past-times that have been reputed to increase lust and pleasure, however it is most likely to be a case of mind over matter. As Allende explains, desire starts in the brain. Imagination is one of the most powerful forces when associating food with desire. It’s all about colour and smell and shape…

Allende includes many details about famous people and their rumoured sex lives, such as Josephine Bonaparte and Cleopatra, however with no references cited or bibliography, it’s up to the reader to make their own investigation into the truth of the stories. The lists of foods forbidden at different times in history makes for quite interesting reading. Forbidden, of course, for their aphrodisiacal properties in a time when sex was seriously frowned upon. I found it quite interesting that a number of plants on the forbidden herb list, such as basil, bay leaf, dill, lavender, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, tarragon and thyme, are all growing quite happily in our herb garden. Just imagine how boring our diets would be if we also had to avoid forbidden fruits such as apples, avocados, bananas, grapes and mangoes as well. No wonder it was called the Dark Ages.

Above everything else, Allende considers love to be the greatest aphrodisiac of all time. The second thing is variety. She is not suggesting here that you should be regularly changing your partner because after years of experience she says that changing partners is “a bore, and in most cases not worth the time and effort. Old lovers are comfortable…” She means introducing a little variety into your shared life, although she does make an interesting point about how our modern obsession with variety is due to losing the ability to savour and enjoy the simple things in life.

Variety doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. It can be as simple as focusing on the presentation of a romantic home-cooked dinner for two. As noted before, Aphrodite is associated with beauty and as we are repeatedly told, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For Allende beauty applies just as equally to food as it does to the human body. She draws on her own culinary experience here, commenting that it does not matter if the dish smells and tastes good, if it looks like something your dog threw up.

The recipes contained in the last section of the book were tried and tested by Allende’s own mother, Panchita Llona, and while many were ones I’d never bother about, I have drawn up a short list. The thing is, the dessert list is twice as long as the mains! Allende’s advice is to learn how to “prepare desserts with grace and serve them with feeling, but try not to eat them.” The reason for this is because “sugar is lethal; it puts on pounds, eats your teeth, and ruins your skin.” Better ration those Valentine chocolates!

I quite enjoyed Aphrodite. Considering that today is the day of love, it seemed an appropriate choice for a Valentines read. Allende writes with humour, with her tongue firmly in her cheek on many occasions, and I really appreciated her emphasis on love as the key to a happy and lasting relationship. You can try the aphrodisiacs by all means, but if love is not present, they are unlikely to have any power at all.

Happy Valentines Day!


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