It's more than two shopping carts passing in the night, more than flirtatious smiles over shrink-wrapped cauliflower. Your neighborhood supermarket is a place of enduring romance, full of erotic fantasies rooted deep in distant times. Much easier to come by than champagne and oysters at a trendy restaurant, edible aphrodisiacs await the savvy Valentine's shopper in virtually every aisle--as long as there's room for a little history on the grocery list.
First stop: produce. While salad-eating may be more commonly associated with restraint than indulgence, that wedge of tomato you so guilelessly eat was once, quite literally, a forbidden fruit. When first imported from the New World, Europeans regarded the tomato as poisonous yet lovely and raised these Edenic "love apples" strictly as ornamentals. Even after they were found to be edible, tomatoes retained their bad-boy allure because they were then thought to be a formidable aphrodisiac.
Avocados were another sexy salad ingredient that at first flustered New World explorers. Named after what scholars say was a Spanish bungling of the Aztec word for testicles (ahuacatl), the allegedly aphrodisiac avocado was conspicuously absent from monastery gardens.
After you bag a couple of these metaphoric fruits, follow your nose to the garlic and onions. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Japanese have all sworn by the seductive power of the smelly garlic clove. You, the multicultural connoisseur, should grab at least half a dozen heads.
Onions were the most popular aphrodisiac in ancient Greece. The Romans spread the secret throughout Europe, resulting in the French tradition of providing newlyweds with a bowl of onion soup to fortify them for the demands of the honeymoon. Onions fried with egg yolk are described as being particularly efficacious. Celibate priests of ancient Egypt stayed away from onions, while "The Perfumed Garden" (a sort of Arabic version of the "Kama Sutra") endorses them, saying, "The member of Abou el Heiloukh has remained erect for 30 days without a break because he did eat onions." So who needs Viagra?
Artichokes cost more but come highly recommended by the French. Historian Harry Wedeck notes in the 1961 "Dictionary of Aphrodisiacs" that the vegetables were hawked in the streets of 18th century Paris by vendors who cried, "Artichokes! Artichokes! Heats the body and the spirit. Heats the genitals." These days you can buy them without anyone questioning your body temperature.
You want heat? Throw some chili peppers in the cart. Some folklorists attribute their widespread aphrodisiac status to their phallic form, while others speculate that the analogy's in the hot-and-bothered response they generate. Puritans shunned them, while Cajun men gleefully sprinkled dance floors with ground pepper, hoping it would be kicked up and inhaled by the prettier women present.
Now wheel that cart over to the beans, either dried or canned--the gastrointestinal result is the same. If flatulence and lovemaking seem incompatible to you, take it up with the medieval monks who banned beans because they seduced attention toward the unpredictable below-the-belt area. An equally unsexy choice would be prunes, which were provided to clients of Elizabethan brothels as a libidinal stimulant. Pick up this pick-me-up on your way to the, ahem, nuts.
The ancient Romans understood nuts in the most carnal way possible, referring to the walnut, for instance, as "Jupiter's glans." They tossed them at weddings to impart fertility, and Italian folk medicine still prescribes them for impotence. The Queen of Sheba had such luck with pistachios that she's said to have nearly exhausted Syria's supply, and pine nuts have historically done the trick throughout the Near East. A can of mixed nuts should cover your bases nicely.
Ignore the baker's chocolate next to the nuts. That's right, you're going to forget that hype about the endorphin phenylethylamine, and instead head over to the deli for a serving of cheese or sausage. That'll fix you with roughly 100 times more euphoria-inducing phenylethylamine than a chocolate bar. On the way to the register, you can pick up some bread, spiced with caraway, rosemary or fennel (all of which have been considered aphrodisiacs) as sandwich makings for the cheese and sausage. Now you have what it takes for a picnic should you meet any potential sweethearts standing in line.
Al Ridenour is the author of an upcoming book on culinary curiosities, "Offbeat Food, Adventures in an Omnivorous World" (Santa Monica Press).