Sealing the deal: Aphrodisiacs and Valentine's Day

The search for an effective aphrodisiac, or love potion, had occupied mankind's time, energy, and wallet for thousands of years. Even now, in the age of Viagra, it's absolutely amazing how many people spend a fortune on foods, beverages, and supplements that supposedly have aphrodisiac qualities. Most of these supposed aphrodisiacs have little or nothing to do with libido; however, for one reason or another, each of them has gained a reputation as a tool for inflaming the passions of one's beloved.

Before you slip some Cantharides (aka "Spanish Fly") to your date, there are a few things that you should know. First off, there are few proven aphrodisiacs, and many of them are illegal, highly dangerous, or both. Realizing that a coma, a night in the hospital, or a stomach pumping won't produce the mood that you're looking for, your best bet is to hope that physical fitness, mutual respect, or at the very least, genuine respect, will do the trick. Alternately, you might try one of the following safe, well-known, and enjoyable aphrodisiacs:

Oysters: Although Casanova famously ate 50 oysters a day, their reputation as the ultimate aphrodisiac predates him by hundreds of years. In fact, the Roman satirist Juvenal noted in "Satire's Woman" that women of loose virtue would often eat oysters and drink huge amounts of wine: "Their quickened ardor no distinction makes,/They riot in libidinous mistakes./They call for oysters in the dead of night/And swill large draughts, to stimulate delight."

Flash-forward almost two thousand years, and it turns out that Juvenal might have been on to something. A recent study by American and Italian researchers has shown that oysters and other bivalves might actually help release sexual hormones. Even if the researchers' specific claims turn out to be untrue, oysters are an excellent source of zinc, a natural mineral that has a direct impact upon the body's supply of testosterone, a hormone that directly affects sex drive. Incidentally, even if you're not interested in finding the perfect love potion, the zinc in oysters can help boost your immune system!

Wormwood: The active ingredient in absinthe, wormwood is famous for its aphrodisiac properties. Regardless of whether or not it actually increases sex drive, the ceremony associated with absinthe certainly adds a sense of occasion to one's dinner table. (Of course, I'm only talking about legal absinthe here. There is no way that I would ever, ever suggest that you pursue illegal absinthe. What's more, I would never give you a link to overseas stores that claim to sell the real stuff and ship it back to the U.S.).

Anyway, to prepare absinthe, place a sugar cube in a slotted spoon directly over a glass containing a shot (1.5 oz) of the green liquor. Slowly drip two shots (3 oz.) of water over the sugar, allowing the water to drizzle into the absinthe. Many brands of absinthe will louche, or become cloudy, at this point. When the water is done dripping, tip the spoon into the glass, stir once or twice, and slowly sip your concoction (preferably while gazing into the eyes of your beloved).

Alternately, if you're feeling flashy, you can try a flaming absinthe. Basically, dip the sugar cube in the absinthe, place it on the spoon, and set it on fire. The sugar will caramelize and drip into the shot below, which will also catch on fire. Allow it to cook down for a few seconds before smothering the flame. When it's cooled a bit, add water, dissolve the melted sugar, and sip slowly.

Finally, if absinthe is a little too exotic for your tastes, you can always go for the standard Martini. Vermouth, the fortified wine that gives the Martini its flavor, originally got its name from "vermut," the German word for "wormwood." For years, vermouth has been America's only legally-accessible source of thujone, the active ingredient in absinthe. Perhaps this is why Martinis have a reputation as an aphrodisiac!

Caffeine: If the evening is going well, you might try finishing with Chocolate Pots de Creme and a nice shot of espresso. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine and seratonin, both of which are natural mood elevators. Once again, it's worth noting that Casanova was a big fan of chocolate, and supposedly made it part of his pre-assignation routine. In addition, what could be more sensual than dark chocolate and a rich red wine?

Another one of chocolate's secret ingredients, caffeine, also can add to the mood. Taken in small amounts, it can stimulate the mind and the body, making you feel more aware and preparing you for an (ahem!) active night. Use carefully; if the evening doesn't work out, you may well find yourself tossing and turning in an empty bed, wondering where you went wrong!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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