detail from cover of Venus in the Kitchen

Last week I asked my husband what he wanted to do for Valentine’s Day. Perry gave me a little sneer, as if I’d told him I was thinking about putting the house on the market so we could go be llama ranchers in Utah. “Are you kidding me?” he asked. “Since when have we ever done anything for Valentine’s Day?”

He’s right. In nearly 20 years together, we’ve never sat through a Valentine’s prix fixe, never looked into each other’s eyes over beef filet and chocolate lava cakes in front of a flickering Duraflame log. That’s how it is for a lot of people. Valentine’s Day feels somehow alien, a holiday trimmed in lace and chocolate truffle samplers, whose catalog of gifts includes pink satin tap pants embroidered with lavender hearts. It’s always felt like a Hobson’s choice between the embarrassingly gushy and the panderingly cute.

Then again, Valentine’s Day itself has an identity crisis: It’s never decided whether it wanted to be a kiddie holiday or a grown-up one, something devoted to puppy love or wolfish lust.

That same ambivalence is in Valentine’s Day food traditions, which alternate between candy and some country-club notion of luxury foods (lobster, rich beef dishes, oysters). Then there are the annual stories about aphrodisiac foods, hyping the zinc level in oysters and the love-drug chemicals in chocolate. Come on: Does anyone really think that sucking down a dozen Kumamotos can actually make you horny? I think we can agree: No one does.

If only Valentine’s traditions bent the way English novelist Norman Douglas tried to skew them—as a culinary homage to horniness, starting with the ancient Romans. In the early 1950s, under the ridiculous pen name “Pilaff Bey,” Douglas satirized the clichés of aphrodisiac foods with Venus in the Kitchen, a collection of recipes devoted to lust (the book was republished in 2002).

Douglas—er, Bey—gives a recipe for fried skink, a lizard that Pliny the Elder ate with relish. There’s “A Pie of Bulls’ Testicles”—His Holiness Pope Pius V had a taste for testicles, apparently—and a recipe for sparrow brains (highly stimulating, according to Aristotle) mixed with “the brains of pigeons which have not yet begun to fly” (you braise them together in goat’s milk). There’s boiled crane, and leopard marrow spread on toast—the very absurdity of the recipes shows Douglas taking the piss out of an entire food-writing genre.

Then there’s “Sucking Pig with Eels,” which involved stuffing a 15-day-old piglet with hunks of eel previously washed in vinegar. Douglas calls it “an extremely appetizing and stimulating dish.”

If only I could find a last-minute baby pig to stuff with eels for Perry. That’s a Valentine’s dinner I could be into.

Header image courtesy of Amazon.

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