Can food produce sexual desire? Or, to put it another way, do aphrodisiacs actually exist?
Many people think so. An online poll conducted by sex therapist Linda De Villers found that strawberries, ice cream, pasta and whipped cream are the four foods most commonly associated with lust. But according to Martha Hopkins, coauthor of "The New InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook," there are no real aphrodisiacs.
"Still," she laughs, "whatever makes you groan when you eat it counts."
If you think about it, a greasy slab of cured pork belly is no odder than many other foods that have historically been considered aphrodisiacs: asparagus, artichokes, avocadoes, bananas, black beans, chili peppers, figs, licorice and pine nuts have all been hailed for their ability to arouse desire.
In renaissance Europe, women were forbidden to eat artichokes, which according to legend had been created when the Greek god Zeus transformed a young maiden into the spiky vegetable. As a result, they were prescribed to men to improve their bedroom performance.
Of history’s most famous aphrodisiacs, only chocolate and oysters still hold claim to their sensual reputation.
The smell of food, too, can elicit sexual feelings, according to research by Alan Hirsch, the neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Having noticed that people who lost their sense of smell also had a diminished sexual appetite.
Men responded to all of the aromas. But the top spot went to a blend of pumpkin pie and lavender, which increased blood flow 40 percent of the time. Runners-up were doughnuts with black licorice (31.5 percent) and pumpkin pie with doughnuts (20 percent).
Women, in contrast, responded most to the blend of cucumber and licorice – two traditional aphrodisiacs – and the scent of baby powder. But perhaps more revealing were the three scents that turned women off: cherries, barbecued meat and men’s cologne. So much for the thrill of the grill.
In the end, Sean was right. Aphrodisiacs are personal. He loves bacon, while my friend James can’t think of anything sexier than Nutella, that thick chocolate-hazelnut spread that is "perfect for feeding each other," he says.
And for "InterCourses" author Hopkins, the sexiest food is grilled asparagus dipped in her French boyfriend’s homemade mayonnaise. But, she adds, the greatest turn-on of all is when he cooks, and then does the dishes.
"If you think it’s an aphrodisiac, it always works," Hopkins says. So pour the champagne, grill asparagus or feed your true love strawberries.
At my house, we’ll be eating heart-shaped waffles and a (hearty) side of bacon.