A Historical Tour of Aphrodisiacs with Francine Segan
by AMNH on
In honor of the approaching Valentine’s Day, the Museum will host food historian Francine Segan on Wednesday, February 8, for Aphrodisiacs: Myth or Reality?, featuring stories and tastings of foods considered to have seductive properties throughout time. Below, Segan unravels the histories behind a few food items thought to have a strong connection to passion.
Why were oysters, scallops, mussels, and other types of seafood hailed as aphrodisiacs?
Francine Segan: Aphrodisiacs were named for Aphrodite, the goddess of love. According to ancient Greek legend, Aphrodite was born from the sea and arrived onshore transported on either an oyster or scallop shell. So oysters and all sorts of shellfish were thought to be aphrodisiacs.
Why did wine come to be viewed as an aphrodisiac?
Segan: The ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped and held yearly festivals for the wine god Bacchus, also called Dionysus, who was born from an affair between the god Zeus and a mortal woman. Wine, for the ancients, was not just a nice drink to have with dinner, but thought to be absolutely essential to good health. At that time, water was often filled with dangerous germs, whereas wine was safe. More than just essential to good health, wine was believed to be essential to life, making it one of the first and most popular aphrodisiacs.
Have any foods been regarded as anti-aphrodisiacs?
Segan: The ancient Greeks, including the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, believed lettuce would “relax desire,” calling it “the plant of the eunuchs.” Poor lettuce was maligned through the 18th century, especially in England, where physicians and medical writers like famed herbalist Nicholas Culpeper insisted that “the juice of lettuce reduces bodily lust.” Coffee, too, was considered an anti-aphrodisiac, and its reputation got so bad that the women of London circulated a petition in 1674 that called for the drink to be banned to ensure future generations of English.
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