originally written 14/05/2010
“ . . . I realized that among the few things that men and women have in common is sex and food. Then I undertook the adventure of exploring both.”
In terms of sheer enjoyment and delight, very little has ever topped this book. I was a bit embarrassed reading it on buses and various offices around town, but I thought for sure it would be a conversation-starter.
I have, to my embarrassment, never read anything else by Isabel Allende. From the way she writes nonfiction, however, I get a clear sense that she’s a magical realist, similar to her Colombian counterpart Gabriel Garcia Marquez . The book is a wonderful, strange mélange of recipes, anecdotes, musings about aphrodisiacs, all written with humor rather than in pornographic detail (otherwise, how would I have obtained it from a public library, and why would I be admitting to you I read it?). As an aside, Allende differentiates between porn and erotica thus: “Pornography is method without inspiration; eroticism is inspiration without method.” I once had a very entertaining book called How to Write Love Letters which, for the sensualist and paper enthusiast was a lovely treat, and for the romantic, it held the perfume of nostalgia. However, in practical terms it only ever helped me lose lovers rather than gain them. Allende is much more “with it,” acknowledging, “In these times, there are very few women who have time to muck about kneading dough or have access to a human head.” One thing I think we can all agree upon: bad breath is a potent anti-aphrodisiac! Equally, I think we can agree with her assertion that love is the best aphrodisiac, as people in love will stop at nothing to get to each other.
She writes a very well-rounded discussion of how orgiastic rites in Roman times turned off the Christian slaves who later ruled the Western world with an ethos of self-denial as the way to godliness. “In the rest of the world, sexuality is a component of good health.” She has no compunction about describing her own almost obscene ardour for rice pudding. Not only did she once have five servings in one sitting, she also once dreamed about swimming in a huge vat of it. She has left little to the imagination in her descriptions of this fantasy, but fantasy it is, and a familiar theme for sensualists (don’t let me speak for everyone!). She also would really like her husband to cook in the nude, or at the very least shed clothes as he peels an onion; frankly, I’d be too scared to cook in the nude: I burn myself badly enough with my clothes on! In fact, Allende describes that she fell in love with her future husband because of his erotic powers in the kitchen; “an experience very few Latin American women have had; usually the machos of our continent consider any household activity a danger to their perpetually threatened virility.”
To taste, Allende recognizes, smell is inextricably linked, and women’s sense of smell is more developed than men’s. (And I get weird comments for the amount of scent-related reflections in my fan fic!) “If we did not have so many prejudices and inhibitions, the smell of a human in his or her natural state . . . would come in a bottle, just as they are trying to achieve with pheromones.” It was a long time before I, personally, found a perfume for me. I remember trundling through Paris department stores with my host in 2005, sampling Guerlain fragrances on little sticks that I still have somewhere; I liked the peony. However, I finally decided on vanilla (which was Madame de Pompadour’s favorite, by the way). Allende is quite against “smelling like dessert”; I’m the opposite, take that however you want. And visual stimulation, it is argued, for women only works up to a point: “our sensuality is tied to our imagination and to our auditory nerves.” (Though it can’t just be women, for as Allende points out, the telephone sex industry is alive and well.) She tells a hilarious story of a woman sitting in a San Francisco opera seat in raptures over Placido Domingo’s sonorous notes to prove the point that what one person considers musically erotic just doesn’t do it for others. There’s also a fabulously described episode when Allende bought gloves in Venice when she was 24 from a glovemaker who examined her hands in caressing detail (to my mind, the hands are one of the most neglected erogenous zones).
One of the more thought-provoking sections of the book talks about harems, which Allende contends are every man’s fantasy and every woman’s nightmare. I wasn’t going to agree with her until she outlined the living conditions of the harem (including the fact that cucumbers were forbidden—think about it). It was a life of extreme tedium, eating and smoking hookahs, surrounded by other women who were probably plotting against your life if you were popular, at the whim of the sultan’s mother—a life that left no trace in history, in the end a lonely life without the exoticism endowed by Western painters. Her rhapsody on the harem made me think, inevitably, of Erik and the odalisque in Susan Kay’s Phantom, a complex episode used to show the cruelty of the Shah-in-Shah’s mother, a character Kay created, a scene to titillate the (female) reader over the Phantom’s barely controlled lusts; but in the end a sad episode, and rather emblematic of the powerlessness of the odalisque’s position in society overall.
Allende is just getting tired by the section on flowers, but Victorian flower language provokes a long aside from me, if you’ll allow me: one of the most romantic gifts I ever got were flowers. See, this was high school, and when it rained, it poured: I had been pining for years after this guy named Nic, who wasn’t interested in me. Then all it once, Tony (who did become my boyfriend later) and another guy named Justin were interested in me. (It’s all detailed in the slightly fictionalized essay “Prom Night.”) It was entirely intellectual and literary between Justin and me: writing each other longhand letters, we never even kissed—holding hands was the farthest it went. But I introduced him to Phantom of the Opera and Phantom, and on opening night of Nunsense, the musical I was in, he brought me a bouquet. In Phantom, Erik tells Christine about the story of the nightingale and the white rose, a Persian fairy tale of unrequited love where in the end the nightingale stabs its heart on the thorn of the rose, producing the red rose which had not yet existed. The bouquet was all white roses except one red rose. I’ve gotten flowers since, roses, tulips, and many others, but never white and red roses.
Ahem, I digress.
Allende isn’t interested in bibliographies , though that she and her collaborators (Robert Shekter, her mother Panchita Llona, and editor Carmen Pancells) researched is obvious. There are endless lists, livened up by Allende’s notations, on aphrodisiac foods of all descriptions: she notes, for example, that the degenerate Madame du Barry enflamed Louis XV’s passions with a mixture of egg yolks and ginger. Figs, which are one of my favorite foods, I found out were considered aphrodisiac to the ancient Greeks and Chinese. I was disappointed with the section on tea; it didn’t reveal anything I didn’t already know and didn’t think much of tea’s erotic properties. While the recipes at the end of the text are quite interesting and, amazingly, achievable (many of them soups because, as Allende reckons, eating a large meal before lovemaking, however aphrodisiac, could be a bad idea), the section on desserts is disappointing indeed. After she got our hopes up with meringue and Cleopatra’s almond-and-honey body paint, it’s all rather insipid chocolate sauces and so on.
Allende thinks that the modern world of battery-powered devices, porn, the ease of getting exotic ingredients from any part of the world, has killed much of the variety that eroticism thrives on and has made us all a bit mechanical, unable to appreciate the slow approach of kissing, licking, smelling, and tasting our lovers. Ahem, speak for yourself.