Bee Wilson thinks aphrodisiacs are a load of baloney

Gastronomic bliss is not just for lovers but for those at all stages of life

Valentine's Day is over, thank goodness. We can pack away for another 12 months all those phoney exhortations to eat champagne-sauced scallops with out-of-season asparagus spears and heart-shaped shortbread. But the belief that food and sex are somehow the same thing is - alas - less readily despatched.

A new edition of Venus in the Kitchen, or Love's Cookery Book, that cult book of aphrodisiacs by the novelist Norman Douglas, has just been brought out by Bloomsbury (£6.99). It's a quaint little volume, got up in pink and eau-de-Nil, just like the fashions of the year it was first published, 1952.

For some reason, Venus in the Kitchen has always been indiscriminately adored, both by writers of taste (Graham Greene and Elizabeth David) and by more predictable gushers (Stephen Fry). Up to a point, you can see why. As a collection of Mediterranean recipes ancient and modern - rich with pistachios and pimentos and with an exotic bias towards brains and testicles - the book is not without interest. It is, however, wholly without lasting value, thanks to Douglas's ridiculous contention that food offers a secret route to arousal and vigour.

"An approved aphrodisiac", is Douglas's comment following a recipe for crayfish soup. He includes all the usual deluxe suspects such as truffles and oysters and game birds. He also praises anchovies as "lust-provoking" and recommends a dish of veal sweetbreads as a "reliable stimulant". What nonsense! A particular recipe may be good or bad; and it may suit your particular taste. But to claim for it the status of a universal love-philtre is simply moonshine. As the Oxford Companion to Food definitively states, there is no such thing as an aphrodisiac. "A remark attributed to a Roman prostitute, that kissing and embracing are the most effective aphrodisiacs, rings true, and makes the nibbling of carrots or sucking of figs seem, by comparison, pathetically feeble."

Yet the belief persists that food, if it is to be good, must aspire to the condition of sex. A recent edition of the Observer Food Monthly was devoted to this theme, with features on "how to dine off your lover at home" and a rather disturbing photo of Antony Worrall Thompson, nude but for an enormous thrusting green cabbage. "You cannot divorce food from sex and, anyway, who would want to?" wrote Nigel Slater. "Frankly, I welcome any sexual association food may have . . . Chillis, for instance, never fail to give this cook a stiffy."

Can't divorce food from sex? Try a little harder. Where is the sex when Miss Marple enjoys her buttered muffins at Bertram's Hotel? Or when the infant glutton fills his belly with chocolate cake? Freudians of a certain kind might tell us that such appetites are just sublimated sexual urges. But they would be wrong. Eating is not some secondary pleasure, always to be subordinated to sexual passion. Food need not be "orgasmic"; it can please in other ways. It can console, nurture, educate and amuse. It can also, to state the obvious, feed, which sex cannot. Gastronomic bliss is not just an aspiration for lovers but for those at every stage of life. Even when you are too young to know the facts of life, you can already enjoy the delectable squidginess of a pink-skinned lychee. The pleasures of the table are more socially accommodating than those of the bedroom and can be indulged freely and publicly without becoming sordid or illegal.

Can't divorce food from sex? Tell that to Catherine Millet, author of The Sexual Life of Catherine M, who observes that most libertines, like her, are not very interested in food - they have other things on their mind.

The belief that food and sex are inseparable seems connected to the fallacy that the word "sensual" means "sexual". Food awakens our senses in ways that go far beyond the "sensuality" of a bottle of massage oil. Cookery has as much in common with music-making as it does with lovemaking.

It would be foolish to deny all connection between sex and eating, those two great human impulses. Without sex, it is true, we cannot reproduce. But without food, we cannot live.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Can Blair survive?