In the opening sentence of her 1998 book, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, Chilean author Isabel Allende declares: "I repent of my diets, the delicious dishes rejected out of vanity, as much as I lament the opportunities for making love that I let go by." In the height and rigor of physical self-awareness of the late 1990s in America, Allende's literary celebration of sex and food found ample response: her naughty recipe/pillow book ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.
Allende's seventh book follows the author's tradition of semi-autobiographical literature; it is a memoir of return to life, written after her 1997 novel Paula about the painful loss of her daughter. In the introduction, Allende states that her re-awakening to sensual pleasures marked her exit from the three-year period of sadness. The critics, calling Aphrodite an unusually "light" work for an author of customarily weightier literature, still praised it as a life-affirming sequel to the grief and anguish of Paula.
Aphrodite's anything-but-linear narrative is a mix of the author's romantic and culinary musings and recollections, her friends' stories, world recipes, excerpts from erotic texts, folktales, mythology, anthropology, poetry, travel writing, ancient and historical anecdotes, even gossip. In Allende's words, Aphrodite is "a mapless journey through the regions of sensual memory, in which the boundaries between love and appetite are so diffuse that at times they evaporate completely."
Even the author's California house was inspiring for the writing of her novel: as the author stated in an interview with Fred Kaplan for The Boston Globe, "it was the town's first brothel, then it was a church, then it was the first chocolate-chip cookie factory. So we live with all these smells—of the women and the chocolate—wafting in the air."
Aphrodite opens with Allende's reflection on her fifty years of life; she emphasizes the way in which memories are based on the sensual experiences that accompanied them. The author further presents her reasons and justifications for writing a book about aphrodisiacs, and offers a brief history of the use of sexual stimulants, consisting of food and many others (from magic rituals to erotic stories). In the "Mea Culpa of the Culpable" section, Allende introduces the people who created the project: the illustrator Robert Shekter, her mother and cook Panchita Llona, her agent Carmen Balcells, and the author herself.
This chapter defines an aphrodisiac as "any substance or activity that piques amorous desire." The author lists the categories of aphrodisiacs according to their function (the analogy of "the vulva-shaped oyster or phallic asparagus," or the suggestion of certain organs that, when eaten, can convey "strength"), and ruminates on the necessary role of imagination in erotica. Further, she examines the relationship between eating and sexual activity, finding that aphrodisiacs are a "bridge between gluttony and lust."
The Spice Is in Variety
Allende states that "the only truly infallible aphrodisiac is love" followed by the second—variety. However, both infidelity and polygamy are unnecessary if one introduces diversity into sexual practice with some study of erotic manuals or use of sex toys. Nevertheless, Allende warns that excessive and obsessive pursuit of variety can numb one's senses to the full experience of savoring the object of pleasure—be it a sexual partner or "a simple tomato."
The Good Table
Allende describes the culinary attitudes of her family, with a traditionally puritan grandfather, an indifferent grandmother, and a mother "who through one of those incomprehensible genetic accidents had in the midst of that Spartan tribe been born with a refined sensibility."
Cooking in the Nude
This chapter states that "everything cooked for a lover is sensual" and that the processes of cooking, eating, and lovemaking should be approached with pleasure and openness to fun. Allende writes that men proficient in the kitchen are sexually irresistible, and offers anecdotes from her own life and a friend's experience to support this statement.
The Spell of Aromas
The author states the interdependent connection between taste and smell, and proceeds to describe the erotic power of scent (as used by Cleopatra and the French monarchs, among others). After a brief history of perfume and a description of the process, Allende recalls her friend's failed attempt to arouse lovers with a purchased bottle of pheromones. The chapter ends with the significance of scent in the sexual experience, and a claim that the sensuous scent of cooking can have a very erotic result. Allende also includes the story "Death by Perfume" written by Lady Onogoro in tenth-century Japan, describing the revenge of a woman who applies erotic fragrances on the body of her cheating lover, finally killing him with a poisonous dose. The erotic appeal of food lies in its resemblance to the body's shapes and colors. The presentation of the table can also be seductive.
Allende calls the rules of table etiquette relative, and describes the pleasures of eating with one's fingers. However, she says that strict rules can also be erotic and imagines such a scenario.
With the Tip of the Tongue
After an analysis of the sense of taste, the author relates it to sexuality and cooking; the key, she states, is in accentuation through opposites.
Herbs and Spice
This chapter contains a history of the use of herbs and spices both in preservation of food and aphrodisiacs, and a list of "Forbidden Herbs."
At First Sight
The visual appeal of the human body depends on the teasing and tempting element of the unseen.
After a short history of orgiastic celebration and some descriptive examples, Allende gives advice on how to prepare an orgy, along with the recipes: Aunt Burgel's Aphrodisiac Stew, Panchita's Curanto en Olla, and Carmen's Soup for Orgies.
The author recalls exotic dining experiences and describes some of the world delicacies that are shunned in the United States. The sections "Alligators and Piranhas" and "Aphrodisiac Cruelties" describe some unusual dietary practices, as well as certain hair-raising aphrodisiac methods.
This chapter explores the nineteenth-century European fascination with the harem as an erotic fantasy, the harem's history, and its cuisine.
Allende describes the ancient and worldwide belief in the aphrodisiac power of eggs, from chicken to caviar. The section "Supreme Stimulus for Lechery" includes Catherine the Great's recipe for Empress' Omelet.
This chapter consists of a letter by the writer of erotica, Anaïs Nin, to her employer, who demanded literature on sex without "the poetry." Nin's reply is Allende's manifesto of pleasure of the sensual vs. the pornographic.
The author explains the sexual power of a whispered, spoken, and written word.
A Night in Egypt
This section is an excerpt from a letter from Tabra, Allende's friend, describing an erotic and culinary experience she had on one of her travels.
Sins of the Flesh
The author lists the aphrodisiac properties of different kinds of meat on the menu.
Allende recalls a conversation with a young male prostitute, and provides the recipe for Aphrodisiac Soup of Acupuncture Master.
Bread, God's Grace
This chapter reviews the kinds of bread, its history, and the sensuousness of making it.
Creatures of the Sea
The author describes uses of seafood for erotic purposes, gives the Bouillabaisse recipe, and quotes Neruda's poem "Ode to Conger Chowder."
This section examines the erotic properties of fruit, and lists coffee, tea, chocolate, and honey as "Other Delicious Aphrodisiacs."
The author describes the sensuality of cheesemaking and lists the most popular kinds of cheeses.
Si Non e Vero ...
Allende offers some advice on how to "cheat" in the kitchen when preparing a complex meal. She also gives the recipe for her seductive Reconciliation Soup.
The Spirit of Wine
This chapter examines the effects of alcohol on the libido and offers some classification of wines according to the cuisine. A similar outline follows the section on "Liquors."
The author gives an overview of both legal and illegal—but usually dangerous—potions and substances, from the Spanish fly and powder of rhinoceros' horn to marijuana and cocaine.
The Language of Flowers
Allende reviews the symbolically romantic language of the past, encoded in flowers.
From the Earth with Love
This chapter lists the aphrodisiac properties of vegetables, along with the Shekter's Vegetarian Aphrodisiac recipe and a "Subjective List of Aphrodisiac Vegetables."
Colomba in Nature
This chapter is a rather comic account of an unsuccessful picnic, in which a professor tries to seduce his plump student Colomba. Allende adds an excerpt from the poem "Eating the World."
The author ends the book with thoughts on the best aphrodisiac, love.
Panchita's Aphrodisiac Recipes
The final third of the book contains the recipes for aphrodisiac dishes, including sauces, hors d'oeuvres, soups, appetizers, main courses, and desserts, all introduced with erotic allusions.
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