Casanova preferred oysters, Cleopatra raw honey. And we’ve all heard about the libido-enhancing properties of asparagus, strawberries, and artichokes. But salmon?

“Any animal that goes through a lot of trouble to reproduce is considered an aphrodisiac,” says Bill Reynolds, the recently appointed provost of Chicago’s Washburne Culinary Institute. “Salmon have to swim upstream to reproduce, and only a small percentage even make it. Then once they’ve arrived, they battle it out for survival and mating.”

Reynolds–who spent 25 years as a chef, instructor, and finally vice president at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York–is the closest thing Chicago has to an expert in the field of culinary aphrodisiacs. In honor of Valentine’s Day he’ll wield that expertise next week with a slide show, lecture, and tasting on the subject, organized by the Culinary Historians of Chicago. “It’s not like I intended to be an expert,” he says. “It’s just that at every restaurant or school I cooked at, people always wanted a romantic Valentine’s Day menu.”

Salmon will appear on Reynolds’s tasting menu, in the form of marinated asparagus with smoked salmon and honey mustard. He’ll also prepare grapes encased in truffle-scented goat cheese and rolled in pistachios. “Goats are sexually mature at three months,” he says, giving them a long sex life. Pistachios are on the list, too. “Nuts are in general,” says Reynolds, because they’re seeds.

A food doesn’t have to have a sexual function, though, to be an aphrodisiac. One theory holds that it just has to look sexual–phallic foodstuffs bring strength by analogy. The rhinoceros horn is a perfect example; a traditional East Asian aphrodisiac due to its resemblance to a human penis, it’s ground to a powder and mixed into a paste for consumption (an image that should send chills up any man’s spine). Other cultures revere deer antlers (shaved thin), sea cucumbers, and asparagus.

Consuming an animal’s sex organs to cure a flagging libido follows a similar mimetic logic. The Chinese eat the penis and testicles of monkeys, while in Indonesia the preferred animal is the seal. For Africans it’s the lion, and for Americans the bull, whose private parts we’ve glibly nicknamed Rocky Mountain oysters. In another vein of mimicry, chilies and hot spices like curry are considered aphrodisiacs because the physiological responses they produce are so similar to those experienced during sex: a raised heart rate, deep breathing, and sweating.

Some aphrodisiacs have science on their side. Oysters, for example, contain megadoses of zinc, a proven testosterone and sperm-count booster, and they’re rich in phosphorus and iodine, two stamina enhancers. The B-complex vitamins and natural sugars in raw honey have also been shown to aid in sperm production, not to mention provide quick energy. (Note for posterity: a 1989 study by the Food and Drug Administration reported that “the reputed sexual effect of so-called aphrodisiacs are based on folklore, not fact,” although it did concede the power of suggestion.)

And then there’s aroma: smell, says Reynolds, stimulates the same part of the brain that controls sexual drive. Cinnamon and vanilla are two strong contenders as aromatic aphrodisiacs, but a recent study points to Good & Plenty candy as “the ultimate female libido booster,” says Reynolds. Apparently, the aromas of licorice and vanilla increase vaginal blood flow. The study also shows that for men, the scents of pumpkin and lavender–not necessarily together–produce the same effect. Ah, science.

Several chefs will offer aphrodisiac menus this Valentine’s Day. Rick Gresh of Green Dolphin Street will offer two six-course degustation menus, one for carnivores, the other for herbivores. As part of his research, Gresh read Intercourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook by Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge, full of randy photos and recipes, which introduced him to some lesser-known stimulants: basil, black beans, pine nuts, edible flowers. “I’ve tried to pack every dish with layers of aphrodisiacs and incorporate wine and spirits into the sauces,” he says. Dishes include warm lobster salad with black beans, petite basil, and a citrus vinaigrette, grilled beef tenderloin with sauteed sesame asparagus (“the guys like the asparagus more than women,” he says), and an artichoke, tomato, and eggplant tatin. Dessert choices include spiced honey cake with cardamom cream and pine nut brittle or white Russian custard with espresso chocolate mousse.

At Saussy, Mara Brie Deckter will take a slightly different approach, offering dishes from romantic places: Arabian cinnamon carrot soup with currants, Caribbean lobster with vanilla sauce and basmati rice, and torta caprese, a chocolate almond cake from Capri, Italy. Chef Paul Kahan of Blackbird decided to skip the aphrodisiac idea altogether, instead designing a five-course menu meant to be shared. “It’s the way my wife and I like to eat, so I thought I’d share it,” says Kahan.

Reynolds’s slide lecture and tasting starts at 10 AM Saturday, February 17, at the Chicago Historical Society, 312-642-4600. Admission is $10, $5 for students.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.