Menu cover Menu interior
The menus at El Internacional were small and simple, printed with an early Macintosh, photocopied on three sheets of yellow letter-size paper, folded, and bound with staples. My essays were on a spread with a related illustration (which I also supplied).


Apicius conducting a class
in sausage-stuffing. c. 0002.
The oldest known cookbook is De re coquinaria (On Cooking), compiled some two thousand years ago by Gavius Apicius (b. 25 BC). Apicius was one of those Roman gourmets whose excesses led to the passage of "sumptuary laws" forbidding wasteful consumption. He was also a teacher of the culinary arts, and so successful that the poet statesman Seneca denounced him for luring youth away from the study of philosophy.
      Although Apicius's recorded tastes ran to such treats as camel heels and flamingo tongues, his cookbook also offers useful information about the eating habits of everyday Romans. One thing we learn about the wealthier ones is that they had little interest in the natural flavors. Seasonings were used abundantly in his recipes. Not only the staples of our day, but many exotic items like lovage, calamus root, hazelwort, rue, juniper berries, spikenard, pine nuts and fennel. Special favorites were silphium, from North Africa, and asafetida, from Persia, both of which were very expensive and rather smelly.
      But the workhorse of Roman kitchens was liquamen (also known as garum), a delicacy made by heavily salting a jarful of small fish such as anchovies or sprats and leaving it in the sun for a few months. The golden fluid that emerged had a slightly cheesy taste. It was added to absolutely everything—usually along with honey, oil, wine, and anything else the cook could find.
      According to legend, Apicius eventually ate his way through his millions and, rather than lower his standards, chose to commit suicide.


Vienna, known as the city of coffee, women, and song only got the drink in 1683 when the Austrians defeated the armies of Muhammad IV, who was intent upon occupying Europe. This success was due in part to F. G. Kolshitzky, a Turkish-speaking Pole who played a key role as a spy. As a reward, he was allowed to choose from the objects the Turks had abandoned He selected some sacks of funny green beans, and the first Polish joke was born that day. But so was Vienna's predilection for coffee.

* * *
Coffee entered the rest of Europe by way of Venice. The drink became so popular with Italians that members of the clergy decided it must be an invention of Satan. Besides which, they pointed out, those infidel Muslims drink it instead of wine, our own Christian sacramental beverage. Pope Clement VIII tasted a cup of the questionable liquid, deliberated carefully, and finally decided to cheat the devil by baptizing it.

* * *
Both the Dutch and the French managed to get hold of seeds from Arabian trees, and by the end of the 17th century had launched their own colonial plantations. The penalty for stealing those seeds was death, but this did not deter Francisco de Melo Palheta, a dashing Brazilian army officer who seduced the wife of the governor of French Guyana in order to acquire a few seedlings. Brazil is now the world's number-one coffee producer.


(In Catalonia, a porrón
is used for drinking wine.)
Man does not love to eat, he eats to love.   Eroticles, The Dionysiad

The idea that certain foods have aphrodisiac powers is as old as Adam and Eve, and these qualities have been attributed to many foods and other edible inventions. Love philters have been made from such unusual items as bird nests, shark fins, and rhinoceros horns (all popular in China, a land known for its population skills), camel humps and sea slugs (Arab remedies), prunes (favored by the Elizabethans), mandrake root (recommended in the Book of Genesis), hyena eyes and ground-up frog bones (big with the Romans).

Many sexual food myths are based on a theory of similarities—hence the popularity of such delicacies as eels, sausages, asparagus, and oysters. In the Middle East, it is believed that Eve really gave Adam a banana. A variation of this myth goes directly to the sexual source, as with caviar and "prairie oysters."

More-quotidian foods have also been held useful in this regard. The great philosopher Maimonides once recommended wine as "the most effective medicine," Falstaff swore by sweet potatoes, Europeans of the Age of Exploration were sure that South America's tomato was Eden's original love apple, and Saint Jerome so feared the stimulating effect of beans that he did not allow nuns to eat them.

All evidence, then, indicates that the world's most erotic cuisine must be that of Catalunya—which is no doubt why you are here this evening. May we suggest then that your tapas include angulas, albondigas, and esparragos con mayonesa? And for your meal, gazpacho soup, butifarra sausage, and a porrón of wine?


Scurvy is a nasty disease traditionally associated with sailors. Because they frequently went for months at a time without vitamin C, as much as half a ship's crew might die on a voyage. Columbus deserves much credit for the discovery of a cure, for he solved the problem by dumping his sick sailors on a rocky little island where their diet was high in citrus fruits. Years later they were rescued by a Portuguese ship, and the island was named Curaçao in honor of the cure.

Within a few short centuries, the British learned of this discovery, yet they did not implement it for many years—apparently because dead sailors were less expensive than live trees. Eventually, a daily citrus ration was made compulsory, and seamen received lemon juice until it was found that limes were cheaper. (Hence the nickname "limey.") But even as scurvy was being wiped out on the high seas, it was becoming epidemic among Britain's urban poor, owing to smog and a diet that consisted mainly of bread. (The Irish escaped this fate because potatoes are rich in C.)

The existence of vitamins was unknown until the early twentieth century, and C was only isolated in 1928. Nowadays, it is widely believed to cure just about anything at all, as long as it is given in megadoses. Still, the vitamin does appear to be helpful to those who smoke (or breathe the air of New York), live under stress, have a viral illness, use birth-control pills, or just feel depressed. So why take a chance? Be sure you get lots of C by eating ensalada catalana, tortilla de patatas, and delicias de limón every day.


While many foods have been touted as aphrodisiacs, very few have attained fame for having the opposite effect—and even fewer have been sought. But two nineteenth-century Americans did make seminal contributions in this area. The Reverend Sylvester Graham was an apostle of temperance and nutrition. He opposed alcohol, coffee, and other stimulants, believed that seasonings heated up the blood, and favored vegetarianism because eating meat encourages the desires of the flesh. Today he is remembered only for the graham cracker (1829), which is made with a flour of coarsely grained whole wheat that was developed specifically to inhibit lust. Whatever its effect on the birthrate, Graham's crusade for "natural foods" probably did help extend the lives of his followers, for the merchants of his day, unhindered by government regulations, often sold food adulterated with dangerous ingredients. (Something that could never happen now.)

The other great name in ethical eating was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan. Like Graham, he believed that sex was not good for one's health and that grains were not good for sex. To this end, he created the corn flake in 1867 to help "cure original sin by reducing the force of sexual passion." Earlier he had authored a health manual that taught parents to detect such early warning signs of sexual self-abuse as pimples, smoking, and moodiness.

Today, of course, we can eat almost anything we like because we know that eating does not lead to sexual excess—listening to rock music does.

Texts copyright © 1984, 1985, 2004 by William Dyckes