Aphrodite: a Memoir of the Senses
Harper/Collins, $26 hard
"Appetite and sex are the great motivators of history ... All of creation is one long interrupted cycle of digestion and fertility."
With this thesis in mind, acclaimed Chilean writer Isabel Allende set out to write a book celebrating aphrodisiacs, the commingling of food and love. The fruits of her research into history and legend, folklore, and great literature are presented in a stimulating collection of essays and recipes to delight and inspire the reader. Allende's lyrical writing style is applied to each of the senses with paeans to exotic tastes, sensual touches, visual images, whispered sounds, and enticing aromas. She also lauds the aphrodisiac qualities of many dishes or ingredients, providing recipes and encouragements for their uses. She describes caviar as "the supreme stimulus for lechery" in a story about the many loves of Russian empress Catherine the Great and reminds us that when making omelets, as when making love, "affection counts for more than technique." Though Allende says that the "sweaty, garlic-tinged odor" of truffles reminds her "of a New York subway," she recounts a story about wanting to seduce a potential amour with a truffle omelet. Real truffles were not within her budget, but a sympathetic Italian grocer taught her to marinate a few good black olives in truffle-scented oil and chop them finely before adding them to her egg creation. "As romantic as truffles, but cheaper!" The lover was duly impressed and none the wiser, but she remarks that his reputation as a lover was just as exaggerated as that of truffles. At that point, she shares her "emergency recipe" for Reconciliation Soup with truffled olive oil, proclaiming it an almost "infallible aphrodisiac" that allows her to make peace with her loved one without humiliating herself too greatly. Who among us doesn't need a recipe like that from time to time?
Allende sprinkles her text with quotes from the erotic literature of Chinese pillow books, the love poems of Pablo Neruda, the erotica of Anaïs Nin, and the sonnets of William Shakespeare. The essays and recipes are illustrated with whimsical watercolors of naked nymphs and satyrs by Robert Shekter and well-chosen prints by a variety of artists. The result is a delightful, guilt-free celebration of appetite and sensuality. In the recipe section of the book, the author cautions us not to expend all our sensual energy preparing the intended aphrodisiac meal lest we fall asleep before the actual seduction can be accomplished. Therefore, most of the recipes created by the author's mother, Panchita Llona, are relatively short and uncomplicated. In the opening pages of the book, Allende tells of a dream where she's swimming like a porpoise in a pool of creamy arroz con leche, her favorite dessert. The book closes with a recipe for the comforting rice pudding that yields eight servings. She suggests that we make the full amount, slather it on a loved one, and slowly lick it off. She notes that in this instance, the calories would be justified. You just have to respect a woman who thinks like that. In much the same way that the film Shakespeare in Love creates a longing for a companion who excites our intellect, Isabel Allende's saucy, tantalizing Aphrodite promotes a hunger for the lover who will ultimately revel in the sensual pleasures of our culinary gifts. Consume it with someone you love. -- Virginia B. Wood