When are we going to grow up? I've been reviewing restaurants for almost 30 years and we're still largely a city bound and gagged by Jesus. Sensuality, arousal, titillation, the obvious fact that hunger and desire are coiled about one another like strands of DNA — all of that is mainly missing from our appreciation of good cooking.
Before you clutch your pearls, please clear your mind for a moment and consider — just pretend — that sexuality and eating are closely linked. Take a trip to the Seattle Erotic Art Festival in June. You'll probably meet chef Tiberio Simone, a "pleasure activist" and James Beard winner.
Simone's book La Figa: Visions of Food and Form includes stunning photographs of nude models decorated with food. A striking aspect is the inclusion of at least one elderly woman, a statement about the lifelong inherency of the erotic. And there's nothing very subtle about the book's name. "La figa" (the fig) is Italian slang for "vagina." (Remember, too, that the fig leaf symbolized sexual shame in Eden. Take it off, all of it.)
The author's sexual play with food is called "sitophilia," not uncommon — even parodied in George Costanza's character in "Seinfeld." It's not something we ordinarily display in public. Well, not unless our tongues are having a three-way with a zaftig scoop of ice cream nestled in a cone at Morelli's.
There have been a few efforts in Atlanta to literally relate dining and the erotic. Two of them — BED and Rare — are defunct. There, you could eat recumbent, like a reveler at a banquet in Epicurean Rome. The only explicit effort remaining, as far as I know, is Tantra. There are no beds, but the restaurant's name refers to tantric sex and its walls include a large image of the Buddha at play. The ambiance befits seduction.
Tantra's neighbor, Imperial Fez, is actually more directly erotic. Diners nestle in pillows piled on the floor, eat with their hands, and watch belly dancers gyrate hypnotically about the room. It borders on kitschy but you can feel the beat and taste the honey.
Paul Luna is the only chef in our city who talks openly about the erotic and dining. The name of his restaurant, Lunacy Black Market, suggests the madness of passion pushed to its limits. Luna made a zany name for himself here in the '90s, then left to work in Las Vegas. Did he find that city more accepting of an erotic approach to dining?
"Absolutely," he wrote me. "You go there because you are going to release yourself of your own personal (cultural) inhibitions. (You have heard the expression, "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," I'm sure.) Sexuality and erotica play essential roles in exploration and self-discovery. These elements seem to be culturally suppressed in Atlanta and Southern culture — at least, overtly."
Dining at his restaurant is an inexpensive bacchanal. The luxury that popularly decorates (and veils) the erotic stage is pared away to something like a culinary speakeasy. Luna brings plates of seductive, playfully spiced food to the table. But all of the senses are engaged, if you allow them to be. Some people are inhibited, you've probably heard.
So how does food itself arouse desire in the way of Like Water for Chocolate? It's chemistry and sensation, of course.
The main contributing element is touch and I'm not just talking the hands. Unless you're all about phallic imagery, picking up a banana or a hot dog isn't arousing. (Apologies to Richard Blais.) What is important is "mouthfeel," whose subjective experience is called "psychorheology," an obsession of the food industry and subliminal marketing.
A chef may play with texture to amplify the flush of passion. Luna notes some examples: "Eggplant with the seeds at the back of your throat. Passion fruit on the tip of your tongue. Any type of liquid, gelati, coconut. It covers the salivary glands in your mouth. It creates a sensory overload."
But classic recipes are often aphrodisiacal, too. An example is the Persian fesenjoon, a stew of pomegranate and ground walnuts with chicken, available here at Sufi's. The pomegranate, which supposedly increases genital sensitivity by affecting blood flow, has historically been regarded as a turn-on and in no minor way. Consult the myth of Persephone for an explanation why.
Basically, the fruit, like the apple of Eden, became a symbol of the oscillations and merging of pain and pleasure, the qualities of a really good fuck. Taste the sweet and tart fesenjoon, its darkly colored, slippery texture. It all starts with the kiss, the lips, the mouth, the devouring bite. Just pay attention. That is the most important step and the one too much of American life discourages, especially where Puritanism still flourishes.
A hot chili pepper quickens blood flow and ramps up nerve sensitivity. And you wonder why you can't get enough of Peter Chang's Sichuan cooking? Chang's food is a slap in the mouth and the pain dissolves into a virtually numb tingling. Meanwhile, as you tingle and your body warms up, other flavors drift over the palate with varying intensity, like a storm of passion moving slowly toward you over a landscape of thirsty earth. Soon, there's a shower of endorphins. Don't fan yourself. Submit.
Go to Fritti or Antico and lift a slice of pizza to your mouth. Does anyone have to tell you? "When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, that's amore." Suck dopamine-saturated oysters from their shells, drag a finger through a bowl of guacamole (made from the fruit of the "testicle tree," as the Aztecs called the avocado), and, of course, there's always the most powerful aphrodisiac of all, chocolate. But make it a good one, like the Sugar-Coated Radical's.
No, good food won't make you wet or give you an instant hard-on. But if you pay attention to hunger and its satiation, you'll feel the connection. If you don't believe it, well, go to Boners BBQ or peel me a fuckin' grape.