The connection between food and romance has become a cliché, especially around Valentine's Day when even the most desultory couple manages to build a castle with a box of chocolate. But the connection is in fact more profound than a once-a-year phantasm. In fact the connection is deeply rooted in history and seems virtually universal.
Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of a direct link between food and romantic emotion is Laura Esquivel's novel (and subsequent film), Like Water for Chocolate. In this magical realist tale of a turn-of-the-20th-century Mexican family, Tita, the youngest daughter, communicates her emotions to her family through the food she makes for them. As she prepares the food, passion, longing, anger or frustration are transmitted via the food to the people who eat the dish, who then experience similar emotions. When Tita falls in love with Pedro, the Quail in Rose Petal Sauce she serves at a family celebration induces lustful feelings in her sister Gertrudis, who abruptly leaves the ranch while making love to a soldier on the back of a horse. When Tita's older sister, Rosaura, marries Pedro instead, Tita sorrowfully prepares a wedding cake, which throws her guests into paroxysms of longing and melancholy before they become violently ill.
Of course, this novel is pure fantasy, but the idea that food directly stirs our emotions has a long history. The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all entertained folk wisdom that various foods could induce sexual arousal, and the medical science and philosophy of the day was used to support such beliefs. We get the word “aphrodisiac” from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of romantic love. According to the myth, Aphrodite was born from the sea and came to shore on a scallop shell accompanied by Eros, thus giving birth to the idea that shellfish can arouse sexual desire in lovers. Aphrodite also thought sparrows were particularly lustful and thus Europeans for many centuries considered sparrows to be aphrodisiacs—demonstrating that it doesn't take much to persuade people when the promise of sex is involved.
Oysters were a necessary part of any respectable Roman orgy, a practice perhaps influenced by the Roman physician Galen who prescribed oysters to remedy a declining sexual appetite. Galen believed that any warm, moist food would be stimulating—as long as it produced flatulence. Galen's grasp of the idea of romance must surely be questioned, but his view was widely held until the 18th century. Foods such as asparagus, mustard, anise, and peas were considered aphrodisiacs for centuries because of Galen's influence. Even a thinker as staid and sober as St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that meat and wine would stimulate the libido. And the concept of an aphrodisiac was not limited to Western culture. Bird's nest soup, sea cucumbers, and a variety of herbs and spices such as ginger, cloves, and ginseng have been commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs for centuries in various Asian cultures.
Of course there is little scientific evidence of a causal effect between food and sexual arousal. Contemporary science shows that, at best, chocolate contains chemicals that can elevate mood, although a recent study has shown that a 130 lb. person would have to consume 25 lbs. of chocolate to have a significant effect. Chile peppers quicken the pulse and induce sweating, but that is hardly equivalent to romance. Here is a summary of what scientists know.
Since there is little evidence of a causal connection between food and romance, stories such as Like water for Chocolate are best viewed as pointing to the power of food as a symbol or metaphor for romance. However, if food is to be a metaphor for romance, there must be sufficient similarities between them to make the connection stick. In what ways are food and romance similar? They both serve functions deeply rooted in our biological needs. Human beings need food to continue living and sex to perpetuate the species and both are required to satisfy bodily urges. It is therefore, not surprising that throughout history people have used food to symbolize romance in ceremonies such as the marriage feast.
The concept of a marriage feast is ubiquitous, seemingly present in every region of the world throughout history. Generations of anthropologists have been fascinated by the marriage rituals of Papua New Guinea, in which the families of the bride and groom stage an elaborate eight-step process of exchanging food gift which must be completed before the wedding can take place. Mesopotamian stone tablets from 4000 years ago tell us that a wedding was concluded by anointing the head of a bride with oil and organizing a banquet in her honor. The symbolic reference of food and procreation was well established in Ancient Rome, where cake was thrown at the bride because the Romans believed that its' main ingredients, wheat and barley, were symbols of fertility. The American custom of throwing rice at newlyweds has the same origin. In parts of rural China, newlyweds find their matrimonial bed strewn with candied lotus seeds because the lotus is a prolific seed producer, and when cooked with lentils they symbolize the traditional hope that the newlyweds will be blessed with many children. Food as a symbol of romance travels well, tapping into an association that is virtually universal. It is easy to see why so many disparate peoples have made this connection. Romance signals fertility, among many other meanings, and our ability to procreate depends on the fertility of the plants and animals that we eat. Food is the product of the generative capacities of plants and animals and is thus a natural symbol of the generative capacities of human beings. The connotations of fertility can be easily transferred from one semantic domain to the other.
These associations between food and fertility depend on the functions of each. But what about the intrinsic properties of food flavors and textures and the pleasure they produce? Are there similarities between the pleasures associated with food and the pleasures associated with romance that reinforce the idea that food is a symbol of romance? Our language suggests so. Most of the words we use to describe our positive reactions to food-delicious, mouthwatering, scrumptious, savory, sweet, luscious, delectable, appetizing, etc.—are used to metaphorically describe a romantic partner. In both food and sex, pleasure is derived from tactile sensations. Chilies light up the senses (if they don't burn too much). The appeal of chocolate is largely tactile, gaining its sensuous edge from its mouth caressing viscosity, which enables it to also symbolize luxury, decadence, and indulgence, all of which have connections with romance. (The preparation of food is highly tactile as well, although pounding, cutting, kneading and tearing are hopefully not associated with romance.) The flavors of some foods produce meanings that are sometimes associated with romance. Vanilla is soothing and comforting. Peppermint has an uplifting effect which may have to do as much with mouthfeel as it does with flavor. Sugar and sweet substances, throughout much of human history, have represented the good life, the rich life, or the full life. Romance is a central part of lives so described. Soup picks up another dimension of romance. It connotes feelings of belonging, well-being and warmth, and is a means of self-fortification and restoration as well, benefits that soup shares with romance, albeit of a substantially different order of magnitude. Perhaps more importantly, the idea of hunger applies to both food and romance. Both “hungers” are among the most powerful and fundamental expressions of human need, and it is with this shared meaning that food maintains its most poignant reference to the domain of erotic .
The relationship of alcohol to romance is perhaps even more direct. Alcohol causes exhilaration, relaxation, and is often used to enhance mood, thus symbolizing the allure and charm of romance. But it also signals (because it directly causes) physical and emotional release, and thus parallels the dimensions of romance that involve “falling”, “letting go”, or “giving in”.
But the relationship between the pleasures of food and the pleasures of romance go beyond mere resemblance. Food exemplifies or highlights romantic sensuality in much the same way music, of the right sort, exemplifies it. The trajectory of romance—the anticipation, heightened arousal, and gratification—is often captured by the way music flows, mimicking the movement of the various emotions that grace a romantic evening. Approached with the proper attention, food can exhibit a similar structure captured well by food writer Jennifer Ianollo's evocative prose:
“To elevate eating to a form of art is to turn all of existence into a radiant canvas, where all that is wonderful in nature can be embraced in one sitting, as our eyes and nose take in the first hints of the pleasures to come. Our salivary glands respond, eager to take the first bite. As the texture of that bite coats our palate, we are engulfed with fragrance and hints of sweet or savory, then the full rhapsody of flavor and its after taste.” (From “Food and Sensuality: A Perfect Pairing” in Allhof and Monroe, Food and Philosophy)
Although contemporary references to “foodgasms” may be a bit of hyperbole, feelings of being enveloped in a moment of pure beauty are characteristic of food, as well as romance and music.
But to experience the most profound form of enjoyment that both food and romance have to offer, we have to look beyond the more superficial kinds of sensual gratifications to which I have been alluding thus far. Romance connects us to something larger than oneself—a relationship that becomes more than the sum of the individuals that make it up, the beginnings of a community, a way of seeing the world through someone else's eyes. It is an activity in which one must give as well as take and thus involves self-knowledge, knowledge of the beloved—thought. Part of the enjoyment of romance is an intellectual apprehension.
Rousseau wrote that “taste is knowing the tissue of little things that make up the agreeableness of life.” (Emile, Book III) The ability of food to exemplify romance is based on the fact that both food and romance involve sharing the “tissue of little things”, the everyday moments of satisfaction, that are the real substance of a life. Of all of our personal belongings, it is food we most readily share with others. That sharing involves an investment of time and energy, and the full enjoyment of both romantic relationships and food requires sustained commitment. The desire to nourish and satisfy others is at the center of both romance and food preparation. Both express care. Thus, both food and romance share a telos—an end—that enables one to stand for the other.
Science may not know the connection between food and romance but who needs science on Valentine's Day when we have such powerful symbols to nourish us.