Food and sex reside at the top of any list of life's great pleasures, so it's no surprise that our fascination with aphrodisiacs (food alleged to stimulate the sexual appetite) has remained constant over the years. Aphrodisiacs derive their name from Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and desire. Whether these love potions are truly a divine gift or merely a hoax, though, is often up for debate—especially when common examples include eels, flies, and various tree extracts. Modern research suggests that aphrodisiac foods deliver essential vitamins and minerals that are often lacking in our diets, and the resultant boost of energy might transition to the bedroom. It's equally possible that the stimulating effects are all in our heads, but if the placebos are delicious, does it really matter? Pass the oysters, please!
ASPARAGUS: Rich in vitamin E, is thought to stimulate sex hormones. Test Kitchen recipe to try: Asparagus and Mushroom Sauté With Pancetta
BASIL: Used in voodoo love ceremonies in Haiti as an offering to Erzulie, the voodoo love goddess.
CHILI PEPPER: The pepper's heat is generated by capsaicin, a chemical that stimulates nerve endings. Also, raises the pulse.
DAMIANA: Also called wild yam, formerly used for medicinal purposes by indigenous peoples of Central America. Now associated with helping erectile dysfunctions, although with no scientific proof.
EGGS: A symbol of fertility. Test Kitchen recipe to try: Shrimp and Egg Stir Fry
FIGS: Soft and sweet. Test Kitchen recipe to try: Arugula Salad With Crispy Prosciutto-Wrapped Figs
GINGKO: Widens blood vessels and therefore increases blood flow to the genitals.
HONEY: Offered by the Egyptians to fertility god Min; is still used in some cultures as part of a wedding ceremony. Test Kitchen recipe to try: Honey Balsamic Pork Chops With Roasted Peppers
ICE CREAM: Melting, dripping, creamy, and sweet. Test Kitchen recipe to try: Butter Tart Ice Cream
JUICES: Pure fruit and vegetable juices can cleanse the body of toxins.
LICORICE: Found by the Chicago Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation to significantly increase blood flow to the penis when combined with the smell of donut.
MASTIC TREE: An evergreen with red or black berries. The ancient Arabic love manual The Perfumed Garden advises readers to "take fruit of the mastic tree (derou), pound them and macerate them with oil and honey; then drink of the liquid first thing in the morning: you will thus become vigorous for the coitus, and there will be abundance of sperm produced."
NUTMEG: In India, mixed with honey and a half-boiled egg, then taken one hour before lovemaking.
OYSTERS: Probably the most famous of the aphrodisiac foods. Erotic in both taste and appearance (a bit like a woman's genitals). Also full of zinc, a mineral vital in the production of healthy sperm. Test Kitchen recipe to try: Raw Oysters on the Half Shell
PINE NUTS: Used to increase sexual potency since Roman times. According to The Perfumed Garden (see M entry), "He who feels that he is weak for coition should drink before going to bed a glassful of very thick honey and eat twenty almonds and one hundred grains of the pine tree."
QUINCE: Sweet and fragrant. Believed to be the forbidden fruit that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.
ROSEMARY: Thought to increase blood flow and therefore heighten sensitivity to touch. Test Kitchen recipe to try: Rosemary-Dijon Grilled lamb Chops and Smashed Potatoes
SPANISH FLY: Made from the dried-out bodies of beetles; works by "stimulating" the urinary track; can be dangerous.
TOMATOES: In nineteenth century France, tomatoes became known as pommes d'amour or "love apples." Test Kitchen recipe to try: Heirloom Tomato Salad
UNAGI: Made from sea eel; thought to restore strength.
VANILLA: Comes from the native Mexican orchid and has been considered an aphrodisiac for centuries.
WALNUTS: Thrown at weddings by ancient Romans, who believed they held aphrodisiac powers. Test Kitchen recipe to try: Pear and Walnut Baklava
XANAT: Also known as the "Vanilla Orchid"; named after the daughter of the Mexican fertility goddess who loved a Totonac youth. Not being able to marry the boy because of her divine status, she turned herself into the vanilla orchid so that she could always belong to her human beloved and to spread "pleasure and happiness" throughout mankind.
YOHIMBINE: Extracted from Yohimbine bark, it increases blood flow. Should be taken in moderation.
ZINC: Directly related to sperm quality and therefore fertility.
Excerpted from Love Notes by Amy Maniatis, Elizabeth Weil and Natasha Bondy. Copyright 2006 by Amy Maniatis, Elizabeth Weil and Natasha Bondy. Excerpted, with permission by Raincoasts Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.