Food and Love: An erotic history

Simon Tierney looks at the relationship between food and sex

Love and food have shared a relationship for as long as animals have existed. Jesse Rhodes, writing in Smithsonian Magazine, argues that food and sex are ‘two of the most basic drives for animal behaviour. Creatures need food to sustain themselves and they need to continue the species—or blow off a little hormonal steam’. But why does this relationship exist in the first place?

According to John S. Allen’s book The Omnivorous Mind, food is used as a trading tactic. Male chimpanzees often offer meat, which they have hunted, to females within the congress as a way of securing a mate. Rhodes says, ‘In human hunter-gatherer societies, this concept extends further; the ability to supply food establishes an economic partnership between a male and a female in which they demonstrate how well they are able to provide and take care of themselves and future offspring’.

The ‘meat for sex’ hypothesis was even highlighted in Only Fools and Horses. In the episode ‘Dates’, Del Boy signs up to a matchmaking service. During the pre-interview, he asks the administrator to write ‘he can guarantee a steak meal’ on his profile.

Aphrodisiacs in history

Throughout history people have put great faith in the ability of certain foods to act as aphrodisiacs. This history tells us a lot about food and even how different foods got the names they have. Casanova was said to have eaten 50 oysters each morning for breakfast and he famously detailed his 100 lovers in his memoirs. Although there is a lack of empirical evidence of the benefits of aphrodisiacs, psychologist Dr. Mark Griffiths, of Nottingham Trent University, says, ‘The important factor is that if people believe the food in question has such arousing properties then there is likely to be some kind of a placebo effect.’

The word ‘avocado’ comes from the Aztec word ahuacatl, which means ‘testicle’ (incidentally, the word guacamole means ‘testicle sauce’). There is some debate about the reason for this meaning. Some say it is because the Aztecs believed this fruit aided virility. Other say it is because the avocado is a similar shape to the testicle. Ink Tank reports that the Aztecs reserved the consumption of avocados for virgins as they believed that they encouraged fertility. In any case, it illustrates the fact that there is a very long history between the worlds of food and sex.

According to an NPR report, avocados first became popular in the Western world in the early 1960s when a group of Californian farmers started growing them. They knew that the word ahuacatl would be too hard to pronounce and they didn’t want to brand it as ‘testicle’ for obvious reasons. So they decided to call it an ‘alligator pear’, because its skin is similar to that of the reptile. This proved confusing because consumers, particularly in the UK, were expecting it to taste sweet, like a pear tastes. Eventually they landed on ‘avocado’, which was phonetically similar to the Spanish translation of ahuacatl, ‘avogato’.

Human dinner plates

However, there are multiple other ways in which food can play a role in people’s love lives, apart from the aphrodisiac effect of food causing an actual chemical reaction in the brain. Perhaps the most interesting is the practice of nyotaimori and nantaimori in Japanese culture. These refer to female and male ‘body presentation’. The tradition concerns the eating of an entire meal off the body of another person. Dr. Griffiths says, ‘This practice is also known as “body sushi” is not usually seen as either fetishistic or paraphilic for those who participate’.

Nyotaimori began as a culinary tradition during the Samurai period in Japan. Canadian chef Mike Keenan, who regularly hosts Nyotaimori evenings, was quoted in the Vancouver Sun. He says, ‘It was a subculture to the geishas. It would take place in a geisha house as a celebration after a victorious battle.’ It is said that those who present must train themselves to withstand the extremities of hot and cold food on their skin because if they squirm then the food will fall off.

Feminist and political activist Julie Bindel attended a nyotaimori dinner in London in 2010. She described the women as ‘laid out as if in a morgue, ­awaiting a post-mortem’. The body on which food is served is usually partially obscured for modesty, using rose petals. A break between courses of sushi take place to allow the human plates stretch their legs 

Jack Herbert, who runs a nyotaimori restaurant in Italy, says ‘Before service, the individual is supposed to have taken a bath using a special fragrance-free soap and then finished off with a splash of cold water to chill the body down somewhat for the sushi’. While many defend nyotaimori as an art form, others, including Julie Bindel, condemn it as another chapter in the objectification of women. Some countries, including China, have banned the practice on grounds of sanitation.

Whether you’re a foodie or just looking to expand your taste buds, Ireland is home to 12 Michelin Star restaurants, each offering fabulous food and the opportunity to create priceless moments and memories. Be sure to tune in to the Moncrieff Show this Friday, April 7th to see who will win a fantastic trip to the culinary capital of San Sebastian, all thanks to Mastercard.

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