A Belated Valentine:
What's Soup Got To Do With It?
(e-SoupSong 35: March 1, 2003)
ONCE UPON A TIME, there was Love.
Love! You know: the thing that everyone wants...yearns after...dreams about.
Which reminds me of Plato's Symposium, when Socrates joined his friends at Agathon's house for a drinking party in 416 BCE to discuss the nature of Love. Before Socrates blew everyone out of the water with his thoughtful analysis on the subject, there were some pretty nutty explanations. My favorite? Ribald dramatist Aristophanes who, once he got over his hiccoughs, slyly explained love as a result of an earlier civilization made up of three rotund and conjoined sexes--male/male; female/female; and male/female. Although ungainly, he said, they had terrible strength and force...and were so wild and out of control--even attacking the gods themselves--that Zeus thought he ought to just kill them off. But then he had a better idea: "I will slice each of them down through the middle! Two improvements at once! They will be weaker, and they will be more useful to us because there will be more of them."
- "Two minds without a single thought."
- "The delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock."
- "An exploding cigar that we willingly smoke."
- "When a liberal wants to marry a conservative or visa versa."
- "Friendship set on fire."
- "Space and time measured by the heart."
- "The beginning, the middle, and the end of everything."
That Zeus always was a practical guy.
It was a little messy, all that reconstructive surgery: gathering loose flesh into bellies; pinching up breasts; reorienting faces and feet; and ultimately having to move "privy parts" front and center. But the poor split halves, as you can imagine, yearn to this day to be brought back together "into unity." "So you see," concludes Aristophanes, "how ancient is the mutual love implanted in mankind, bringing together the parts of the original body, and trying to make one out of two, and to heal the natural structure of man."
Alas, though, what happens when you DON'T match up with your soul mate? What happens when you fall in love...and yearn to "heal the natural structure"...and your love is not returned?
Why you turn to aphrodisiac cookery, of course--and what a long history there is of it.
ABSINTHE MAKES THE HEART GROW FONDER
I was surprised to learn that the most ancient Western aphrodisiacs, way back in ancient Egypt, were onions, radishes, and leeks. I mean, come on: you want to dose your wannabe lover with alliums so he or she can come on like a field of garlic? And yet, when you think about it, the snap of desire is all about stimulating the senses: perfumes and unguents for the nose; jewelry, cosmetics, and suggestive clothing for the eyes; soft hands and lips for the touch; sweet nothings and music for the ears; and...and...well, what was the best bet for stimulating the palate in those ancient days? Tough barley cakes? No. Chickpea porridge? No. Stringy goose chunks? No. Sharp, clean tasting fresh vegetables? In fact, yes--likely your best bet, not to mention cleansing and energizing too.
In classical Greece, the principle was the same, but topography and foodways were different. The tang of herbs. The earthy sponge of mushrooms. The smooth and salty richness of seafood.
From India--whose Ayurvedic medicine developed rich spices and sweets and contrasting sharp vegetables as amatives--it was said that King Sandrocottus sent aphrodisiacs to Greece "so potent that when placed under the feet of lovers they caused, in some, ejaculations like those of birds." Mercy! On the Hindu love menu: saffron, ghee (clarified butter), fruits, yogurt, pulses...and those onions, garlic, and leeks again. From the Kama Sutra: "If ghee, honey, sugar, and licorice in equal quantites, the juice of the fennel plant, and milk are mixed together, this nectar-like composition is said to be holy and provocative of sexual vigor...."
One last plaintive cry, from the sacred Indian text Samayamatrika, of an aging woman: "Aware that her youth was passing and wishing to oust all the rest of her decrepit lover's women, she took pains to enthrall him by the use of magic plants. At the same time, she re-awakened his juvenile ardor by the judicious use of fish soup...."
Did you catch that? Let me repeat that for you: fish soup. Not the last bowl of soup you're gonna see on the Love Menu.
Then Rome! Well, what would you expect from those decadents anyway? Ovid extols eggs, nuts, and honey. Martial advocates sharp lettuces and cabbages and opines: "If your wife is old and your member is exhausted, eat onions a plenty." Then, too, everyone swore by that sharp Roman seasoning made from fermented anchovies--a fish sauce variously called garum, liquamen, and muria . You may know it today as...Worcestershire sauce, left behind when Roman soldiers withdrew from the remote colonial outpost of 5th century Britain after 500 years of occupation. Honest! Read the label and tell me if you don't see "anchovies" as the first real ingredient.
After Rome came the sober propriety of Mother Church to clean up prodigal Europe. Forget carnality. Forget the amatory arts. Forget erotic food. Some medieval religious orders even forbade the eating of beans. Why? Precisely because of their side effects. Those airy explosions, you know: they could stimulate nether regions and cause impure thoughts. Oh, pardon me--more information than you actually wanted.
If Sheik al-Nefzawi's Perfumed Garden for the Delectation of Souls (circa 1500s) is any indication, the Arab world saved more than Aristotle from extinction during the Dark Ages. "He who feels he is weak for coition should drink before going to bed a glassful of very thick honey and eat 20 almonds and one hundred grams of the pine tree."
In fact, the erotic arts ultimately came back to Europe from the Mideast with returning Crusaders, along with fabulous new food stuffs. Suffice it to say, at the dawn of the Renaissance, Europe took off her hair shirt, loosened her hair, and dabbed some perfume behind her ears, never to return to the convent. In his 16th century Dyetary of Health, Scotsman Andrew Boorde included a chapter on aphrodisiacs that he based on his research and travels to the Holy Land. Cabbages, turnips, onions, artichokes, sugar, and other dainties were back on the boudoir table.
What about ancient China and Asian civilizations? Using food almost as a medicine to balance cold and hot natures, they above all valued--and still do--good health for good loving. But they likewise specifically valued seafood as an aphrodisiac, including the fish sauce of nuoc mam and nam pla, and they also from time immemorial have subscribed to the so-called laws of similarity (i.e., is it a tiger's sex organ? is it shaped like one?) and of rarity (is it horribly expensive? impossible to find? a little poisonous?). Thus all the press attention to animal pizzles and testicles, powdered rhino horn, cobra and fugu venom, mostly brewed in soups, to light a man's fire.
And the New World? Are we going to be surprised that it was chocolate, chocolate, chocolate? Aztec ruler Monteczuma was said to fortify himself with as many as 50 cups of hot chocolate before strolling into his 600-wife harem.
SOUP ON THE BOUDOIR TABLE
Apparently just something about a hot, liquid delivery system for all these amorous ingredients that intensifies desire. Remember the ancient Indian woman and her prescription for fish soup to awaken her aged lover's juvenile ardor? Then, Alexandre Dumas swore by almond soup as an aperitif after the theater before bedding his mistress. And it was the Marquis de Sade, in 120 Days of Sodom, who said, "the most potent erotic dinner should start with bisque."
I think I most particularly want to draw your attention to that infamous scene in the film Tom Jones when Tom (Albert Finney) and (all unknowingly) possibly his mother Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman) meet for a sex-drenched dinner. They begin, naturally, with big steaming pewter bowls of soup, whereat Mrs. Waters leans well over the table and lustily slurps big round spoonsful of soup, breasts tumbling out of her bodice and with a more-than-come-hither look. What does Tom do in the face of all this suggestive sipping and spoon licking? Nearly overcome, he involuntarily rips a claw off the langouste he has in his hand and happily sucks on it.
So let us ring out the Valentine month with a couple of aphrodisiac soups, lovingly prepared from both old and new world ingredients: Tantalizing fennel soup, traditional to Spain, a heavenly start to a meal...or whatever you might have in mind--and concluding with a rich Icelandic chocolate soup for dessert.
CATALAN CREAM OF FENNEL SOUP WITH ORANGE SPICE
(Sopa de Fonoll)
Garnish: fine gratings of orange rind and paper thin slices of green onions, separated into rings
- 4 Tablespoons butter
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 3 heads of fennell, trimmed up stalks and fronds and chopped
- 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- a large piece of orange rind (at least the size of a Tablespoon), scraped of the white pith
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
- 1 teaspoon salt
- dash of white pepper
In a large saucepan, sweat the onion and garlic in the butter over a low heat, covered, for about 10 minutes. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Add the orange rind piece and the chopped fennel, then reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Puree and strain, pressing hard. Discard solids, including the orange piece, then return the soup to the saucepan. Stir in the cream, salt, and pepper, and reheat.
When ready to serve, ladle into bowls and top each with a fine grating of orange rind and a few circles of sliced green onion.
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CHOCOLATE SOUP (adapted from Nanna Rognvaldardottir's Icelandic Food and Cookery)
Garnish: whipped cream and a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar
- 3 Tablespoons cocoa powder
- 3 Tablespoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 2 cups water
- 3 cups milk
- 1 Tablespoon potato starch or cornstarch mixed with 2 Tablespoons cold water
- pinch salt
Mix the cocoa, sugar, and cinnamon in a saucepan then whisk in 2 cups of water until smooth. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour in the milk, heat again to boiling, then reduce heat and let simmer for 5 more minutes. Stir in the starch-water liquid and whisk until thickened. Salt to taste. When ready to serve, ladle into small cups and top with whipped cream and sprinkle with a pinch of cinnamon sugar.
Suggestively yours--and wishing you a belated Happy Valentine's Day,
A last thought:
Love is such a funny thing;
It's very like a lizard;
It twines itself round the heart
And penetrates your gizzard.
Resources: Eugene Brussell's Webster's New World Dictionary of Quotable Definitions,Fred Metcalf, The Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Marilyn Ekdahl Ravicz' Erotic Cuisine: A Natural History of Aphrodisiac Cookery, Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir's Icelandic Food and Cookery, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, Great Dialogues of Plato, "The Symposium," James Trager's The Food Chronology, Mick Vann's "Weird Food Aphrodisiacs," and a number of websites for background.
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NEXT MONTH: In honor of April Fool's Day, SHAGGY SOUP STORIES. And, gentle readers, I solicit your input! Please be creative and send me your most groanworthy stories that somehow involve soup. All qualifying stories shall be given a permanent place of honor on Soupsong.com. And soupsong prizes shall be awarded. For inspiration, you can look at some whoppers on www.heggen.net/entertainment/shaggy_dogs or on www.geocities.com/EnchantedForest/Glade/8851/shaggy.htm.