Review: Aphrodite


Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses

by Isabelle Allende, Robert Shekter (illus.), Panchita Llona (recipes)

1999. Perennial.

I admit that my primary motivation in picking up Aphrodite from a sale rack was that I am an Allende fan, and from this perspective it is a delightful read indeed, offering playful insights into the amorous life of this feisty and eloquent Chilean author. Beyond satisfying any celebrity curiosity, even those unfamiliar with this author may be seduced by her witty charms in this unfussy collection of “erotic meanderings,” recipes, art, poetic excerpts, and stories “based on approximate truth.” Meanderings is an appropriate description, since the book reads like a series of friendly personal anecdotes, interspersed with worldly legends of erotic lore, and tangents back and forth between the allied realms of lust and gluttony (which Allende matter-of-factly identifies as “the only capital sins that encompass the possibility of style”). Because of the considerable overlap between the sensory and sensual, love and appetite, aphrodisiacs and lusty snacks, recipes serve as the ideal element in reining all these sensual diversions within a single binding.

I appreciate that some information defies literary formatting, and as such, even beyond reasons of convenience, lends itself to transmission in list form. What a delight to see lists of aphrodisiacs in all their alphabetized splendour, under sensible categories like spices, vegetables, fruits, meats and liquors! These lists are sprinkled throughout the book, between musings on the particular historical bases of such and such love philter and Allende's recollections of euphoric culinary encounters with lamb stew, for example.

The recipes themselves are accessible and straightforward (no supernatural demands, and many ingredients are already in your kitchen cupboard), including both vegetarian or fleshier selections, sweet and savoury, those aimed at stirring the senses as well as those to restore the energies following a bout of sensual experience. Most of the recipes were contributed by Allende's mother Panchita Llona, and are contained in the latter half of the book, although plenty have seeped randomly into the pages preceding the recipe section and can be difficult to relocate later, say when the occasion calls for a Bacchanalian Stew for an orgy of ten. (This is by no means a cookbook, after all, and so there is no handy index organizing the contents by ingredient.) The aphrodisiacs are considered in their totality, whether their influence on the passions is founded on phallic shape, mouth-feel, the aromas produced on the stove or the chemical effects asserted on an amorously receptive brain. Cutesy/naughty nymph and satyr drawings appear occasionally—cartoons I don't much care for except that they were contributed by an arthritic, old, British, vegetarian friend of Allende's (how lovely!).

I find the relaxed format of the book refreshing in its casual attitude, since leaving it on the nightstand for a month won't leave you feeling guilty or confused when you decide to pick it up again. Indeed, the conversational quality of Aphrodite's delivery makes this a great book to keep lying around, to open whenever a hot date demands culinary inspiration, or a rainy day tempts you to try the recipe that has you proving bread dough between your legs (optional aphrodisiac-ization: sprinkle with saliva beforehand, offer to an elusive lover after). Given my amusement at Allende's assertion that “appetite and sex are the great motivators of history,” since “all of creation is one long uninterrupted cycle of digestion and fertility,” I find more than occasional opportunity to be charmed by this book.

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This review was originally posted as part of the Food & Cuisine zine of Fall 2004.

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