Even if Western medicine has discredited almonds and rhinoceros horn as possessing no more aphrodisiac potency than a placebo, there's little doubt that food has a tremendous impact on the way we approach sex. The sensual textures of avocado or mango speak for themselves, and a perfect wine is more of a love potion than anything an apothecary ever cooked up. The choice of restaurant can even determine the future success of a date. My friend Joanna once told me, "No one ever says, 'We went out for bean burritos and then went home to have the best sex of our lives.'"
Anyone who's read one of Anthony Bourdain's racy kitchen memoirs or lusted over a sinfully delicious slice of chocolate cake knows that the line dividing sexual enjoyment from the delights of taste is already very thin. After all, Eve's original sin was an act of food, not sex. But what if, rather than merely being a precursor to the act, food is becoming the act itself?
"I don't believe in sublimation," declares former New York Times food critic Gael Greene. "In 18,783 meals as a restaurant critic, give or take two or 300, I have never eaten anything that was better than good sex. I read other critics insisting some extraordinary hand-churned chocolate ice cream is 'better than sex.' I wonder if their sex is that perfunctory."
A. V. Flox, editor of the internet site "Sex and the 405," blames the recession for a rampant sexual repression that eventually turned her into a foodie. It wasn't long after the market dropped that she opted for a divorce and started cooking.
"Everything is carefully inspected, selected, purchased, put away, then taken out, washed, cut up, mixed, put to the flame . . . Sex to a lot of us has lost its focus on the details. It's lost its sensuality. The kitchen brings that careful attention to the senses right back. It resurrects eroticism," she writes.
Food-preparation classes are reintroducing a new generation to primal hunting and gathering skills that have been collectively forgotten. If preceding generations considered it a luxury to be able to pay someone else to prepare their food for eating, it's suddenly a luxury to be able to bake one's own bread and grow one's own tomatoes in an ironic twist of food fate.
"I love that earthy old-school arts like butchery are becoming fetishized in the food world," says "Biteclub" food blogger Heather Irwin. "Becoming that intimate with your meat is such a visceral experience. Touching, squeezing and feeling meat and bone, watching fat and muscle peel away like butter with a razor-sharp knife, then cooking and eating the animal is so primal."
So if food and the act of tenderly preparing and eating it are the new sex, then cooking shows are the new porn, chefs the new porn stars. With decadent close-ups, "food porn" tempts viewers to reach into the image for a bite. And much like the feats of performance in pornography, which the average person would not attempt, food porn usually features exotic ingredients and complex recipes.
"People talk about the objectification of women's bodies, or what I consider to be the objectification of sex itself, in porn, and you see that with food," says Michele Anna Jordan, cookbook author and food columnist who firmly believes that the pleasures of the table and the pleasures of the bed are inextricably linked. "Especially in shows like Iron Chef and Chef Smackdown, where you're watching it, sitting in your home and thinking, 'Other people can do it better than I can.' There's passivity and indulgence. It's food as passive entertainment rather than food as one portion of daily life. It's less about enjoying food together with the people we love—maybe one, maybe more—in the home everyday."
Perhaps Americans are bored with sex and are merely ready for another way to get in touch with their sensual side. In the wake of the sexual revolution, people are more concerned with risks like HIV and the taboos surrounding sexuality. If the gratifications of the kitchen exceed those of the bedroom, why not simply run with it?
"I am willing to believe that sex may not be all that powerful or even accessible for everyone," Greene says. "And in that case, anyone who thinks melting chocolate cake is better than bad sex or no sex, I say, go for it. I definitely believe in pursuing pleasure."
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