A culinary history of Valentine’s Day
Many of the foods people expect on Valentine’s Day just don’t make sense,” Amour Café’s pastry chef Amber Billingsley says. “Like strawberries dipped in chocolate, for example. Strawberries in February are not good.” Take those under-ripe, overly-tart fruits out of season and not even the best chocolate is going to compensate. “Plus,” she says, “I’ve never liked the combination of strawberry and chocolate. There are so many other flavors that work better together.” As we talked more about the often unrealistic expectations and traditions of Valentine’s Day, Billingsley and I agreed that as it’s celebrated in modern times, this seminal holiday for lovers seems to be full of culinary complexity. And it’s a big day for the food industry in general: Between the thousands of tons of chocolate produced and sold-out restaurant bookings made weeks in advance for prix fixe dinners, much of the day’s traditions revolve around food.
Considering that our basic animalistic needs are driven by the dual survival modes of eating and procreation, it’s no surprise that the ancient roots of many holidays, including and especially Valentine’s Day, have their beginnings in ancient celebrations of fertility and agriculture. Over centuries, many Christian holidays combined appealing aspects of revelry and celebration with stories from the Bible. In ancient times, Yule celebrated the rebirth of the sun following the winter solstice with evergreen boughs and bonfires. Today, it’s commercialized with our annual hunt for the perfect Christmas tree and strands of twinkling lights. Like many modern interpretations of Catholic saints’ days, the basic outlines of Valentine’s Day also have morphed into a combination of pagan fertility celebrations taken over by Christian festivals to appease the hungry masses.
In Roman times, the feast of Lupercalia from Feb. 13-15 was dedicated to the god of agriculture, Faunus, and to Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus. Romans sacrificed a ram—long associated with male sexual energy—and would fling the bloody hide at young women gathered to ensure the community’s fertility. (Trés romantic, right?) Commoners and elites alike reveled with feasting, copious alcohol consumption and public clothing-optional debauchery in the waning days of winter. Overlapping this time of social conflict and jockeying for religious power, early Christians chronicled two (and in some accounts, three) different martyrs named Valentine, who were executed on Feb. 14 in the third century A.D. under orders of Roman Emperor Claudius II. The Catholic Church later granted both Valentines sainthood, with their combined saint’s day celebration on Feb. 14. St. Valentine’s patronage is officially attributed by the church to intercession against epilepsy (once known as “St. Valentine’s Malady”) and the plague, and on behalf of love, happy marriages, apiarists—e.g. bee keepers, which also corresponds to honey’s long association as an aphrodisiac—and, presumably, greeting-card manufacturers.
According to 18th century English antiquarians Alban Butler and Francis Douce, Catholic popes in the fifth century recognized that abolishing Lupercalia feasts entirely would be unattractive to a populace who looked forward to the annual revelry. Pope Gelasius I wisely appropriated aspects of the popular festival within the guise of celebrating the sainthood of both Valentines, encouraging Lupercalia’s association with themes of love, fidelity, coupledom and agricultural abundance, while discouraging the ancient traditions of animal sacrifice, nudity and (putting it circumspectly, here) public consummation of relationships. Through the Middle Ages, Feb. 14 further became associated with romance, as many Europeans believed the day marked the beginning of mating season for legendary monogamous bird species. In his 1382 poem, Parlement of Foules, Geoffrey Chaucer described love thusly: “every bird cometh to choose his mate” on “seynt Voantynes day.”
Although chocolates presented in heart-shaped boxes especially for St. Valentine’s Day would not become popularized until that marketing genius and English chocolate engineer Richard Cadbury created semi-solid “eating chocolates” for distribution in 1861, chocolate had a long and celebrated history of being consumed in liquid form as a romantic stimulant. In her “memoir of the senses,” Aphrodite, writer Isabel Allende describes chocolate’s sensual qualities at length. In sacred rituals, the Aztecs drank cacao beans ground into powder, which were associated with the goddess of fertility, Xochiquetzal. “The cruel conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortés, tasted it first in the court of the emperor Moctezuma and shortly thereafter introduced it into Spain, where its fame as an aphrodisiac was so great that women drank it in secret,” Allende wrote. By the 17th century, drinking chocolate—popularized by Louis IV’s famous daily consumption and its prevalence in the Versailles court—became more available to the masses in chocolate houses in cities like Paris and London. Smithsonian historian Amy Henderson notes that legendary courtesan Madame du Barry “was said to use chocolate mixed with amber to stimulate her lovers,” and, “When Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI in 1770, she brought her personal chocolate maker to Versailles. The official Chocolate Maker to the Queen created such recipes as ‘chocolate mixed with orchid bulb for strength, chocolate with orange blossom to calm the nerves, or chocolate with sweet almond milk to aid the digestion.’”
Containing the chemical theobroma, chocolate’s natural stimulating qualities can be both addicting and disinhibiting. “What woman has not seen her defenses crumble before a box of chocolates?” Allende wrote. Now, West African countries (particularly Côte d’Ivoire) produce more cacao than all the plant’s ancestral American countries of origin combined. Global revenues from chocolate now exceed $98 billion annually, according to United Nations economists.
Bringing the economics of the trade closer to home, Utah’s high-end chocolate producers have been a driving force in the industry, and Saveur magazine called Utah “the craft chocolate capital of America” in an article last year. Matt Caputo, chocolate expert and Caputo’s Market & Deli director of marketing, notes that their stores sell more than 400 varieties of craft chocolate, making Caputo’s one of the most diverse artisan purveyors in the country. According to studies in 2014 and 2015 by the National Confectioner’s Association and the National Retail Federation, respectively, of the $18.9 billion Americans spend on Valentine’s Day each year, a sizeable chunk is on food and drink—specifically candy, sparkling wine and restaurant dining. In the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, Americans purchase 58 million pounds of chocolate, a majority going into 36 million heart-shaped boxes. Additionally, eight billion conversation ‘sweethearts’ are produced for distribution, although I have yet to meet a person who actually enjoys consuming them.
Pastry chef Billingsley attributes chocolate’s popularity for Valentine’s Day desserts and beyond to it’s inherently decadent qualities. “Sweets, chocolate and pastry are all about pleasure. That’s their only purpose,” she asserts. Even the shapes of pastries have been long affiliated with fertility symbolism. Think éclairs, cream puffs and pastries associated with other February saints’ days, like Italian Minni di Virgini (St. Agatha’s Breasts, complete with cherry-tipped nipples). According to Billingsley, “Really anything could be considered an aphrodisiac within the context of a particular time and place. To me, those foods that people create as tokens of devotion are the most stimulating.” She shared with me a story from her early days dating her now-husband, chef Robert Angelilli. “We’d just finished a shift working in the restaurant, and I was starving. Robert made me potato gnocchi from scratch—something not on the menu—with just a bit of butter, salt and pepper.” This token of food and affection stays with her even now, decades later. “It was so good, so comforting. He made it just for me, and I fell for him so hard.” (Authors note: I would, too, Amber.)
My husband tells a similar story about our own unconventional courtship when we were wilderness rangers stationed near Mount Rainier; he was completely besotted after I made him brownies from scratch without using a recipe, cobbled together with pantry ingredients scrounged in his rudimentary bachelor’s kitchen in the middle of nowhere. The following Valentine’s Day he proposed, and we’ve called them “proposal-worthy brownies” ever since.
Billingsley and I both agree with Isabel Allende’s contention that humans have attributed aphrodisiacal qualities to wide categories of food and experience, creating love philters from ingredients rare, exotic and profane. And often—as in the case of the apocryphal “stimulant” of powdered rhinoceros horn—there have been devastating ecological consequences. Foods resembling sexual organs abound with sensual mythology and rumors of aphrodisiac qualities: tomatoes, eggplant, prolific grains like wheat and rice, fruit of all varieties and coloration, eggs in every form from the smallest caviar to the exuberant ostrich, and aromatics like fresh herbs. Through the perspective of modern food science, we can appreciate that people who ate vitamin- and mineral-packed foods like the ones listed above were probably healthier, with better fertility and overall attractiveness. This also held true for the legendary aphrodisiacal qualities of pretty much every creature pulled from the sea, especially zinc-rich oysters (zinc being a crucial element for producing testosterone). Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sexuality, and her counterpart in the Roman pantheon, Venus, are both presented in art and mythology as rising naked from the ocean cupped in a seashell, underpinning the eroticism of shellfish. Artistic renderings of Aphrodite’s son, Cupid (and Venus’s progeny, Eros) became particularly popular during the Middle Ages, often accompanying stories of love and romance. During the Renaissance, Cupid’s bow and arrow became identified with visions of love at first sight, and images of chubby bow-wielding cherubs followed into the Victorian era’s ideals of romance. Never ones to leave any concept simple—especially when associated with anything remotely romantic—the Victorians developed complex systems of communication via everything from flower symbolism to the colors used in even the smallest correspondence. The red of true love and pink of bold intentions became synonymous with Valentine’s Day cards, especially when they became mass-produced in the late 19th century, and those distinctive colors—along with Rubenesque cherubs—liberally decorated those iconic Cadbury chocolate heart “Valentine’s” boxes from the very beginning.
While certainly one of the more entertaining encyclopedias of aphrodisiac ingredients, Allende’s volume is one of hundreds penned every year, which the author herself finds puzzling: “Frankly, I don’t know who buys them, because I have never known anyone who cooks or makes love from a manual,” and further, “The ultimate purpose of aphrodisiacs is to incite carnal love, but if we waste all our time and energy in preparing them we won’t have much left for luxuriating in their effects.” This may explain why dining out on Valentine’s Day is so popular; perhaps outsourcing the food portion of our primal urges allows us to concentrate on the more romantic aspects of the day’s activities.
The National Restaurant Association (that’d be the other NRA) notes that over one-quarter of Americans dine out on Valentine’s Day, coming in second only to Mother’s Day as the most popular holiday for restaurants, pumping about $3 billion into the industry. Demands for out-of-season strawberries dipped in chocolate aside, restaurants are competing for the attention of both new and established clientele, and that amount of customer volume can create a lot of high expectations and pressure on both sides of the kitchen pass. A 2011 NRA study noted that “More than 2 in 5 consumers say they pick their favorite restaurant or their companion’s favorite restaurant for their special meal, and about 1 in 5 select a restaurant with a romantic atmosphere, followed by restaurants that offer special menus or promotions.”
Fortunately for Utah diners, the list of romantic destinations is both diverse and lengthy, with many spots offering special tasting menus and celebratory wine pairings. Whether intentional or not, most of the menus graciously tip their hats toward the traditions of luxury and decadence, with oysters and champagne found in copious abundance. As Bambara’s General Manager Nicole Willis described last year’s celebration in a press release, “We’re serving up some spice and some romance, a dash humor, a little sappines—all the ingredients that make a great relationship.”
And for those choosing to cook up a little romance in the home kitchen, might I suggest making some homemade gnocchi and a batch of decadent brownies? They’re proven winners.