Saturday, February 10, 2018

341. Nightshades and Aphrodisiacs: Getting It On and Up in the Kitchen

For a five-star review of my novel Dark Knowledge, go here and scroll down.

Ambulances are a part of daily life in the city.  We hear their screeching sirens in the street and see them racing by, hopefully to save someone's life.  And I have encountered them -- or at least, their drivers -- four times in my apartment.

Visit #1.  Some years ago, when my partner Bob's temperature spiked up, his home care aide Jacques and I called an ambulance.  Bob has Parkinson's, but he was quite clear-minded, didn't want to go to a hospital, and by now his temperature had come down a bit.  The ambulance driver in charge, who was quite sane and civil, suggested that we wait till morning; then, if the temperature was up again, call an ambulance.  We agreed, and the two ambulance men left.  In the morning his temperature was down and close to normal -- no emergency.  And I remembered that his catheter had been installed the day before, which probably explained the temporary spike.  Lesson learned: if temperature spikes up, consider the context before calling an ambulance; it may well be a temporary spike.

Visit #2.  On another occasion Bob's nurse suggested that he go to the hospital for a check-up, to make sure that no other condition besides Parkinson's was affecting him.  So we called an ambulance and they came, a rather hefty woman and an older man who was obviously too old to be taking a patient down four flights of stairs.  But they managed, and off he went.  The verdict: a lot of medical gobbledygook, but in the end, no other condition to worry about.

Visit #3.  One day Bob fell asleep and couldn't be wakened by Jacques and me, so Jacques called the Visiting Nurses.  Two came, then two more.  They took his vital signs, diagnosed an infection, and called an ambulance.  Four husky firemen came.  There were now ten people in the room, but Bob slept peacefully on.  The firemen rigged up an apparatus that let them take Bob down the four flights while keeping his chair level and off they went.  The infection was healed in the hospital, and back Bob came, with another strange apparatus that I, a layman, was supposed to monitor, dripping an antibiotic into him.  But it all worked out.

Visit #4.  This one is still in progress.  Yesterday evening Bob seemed to fall asleep while trying to read, and neither Jacques nor I could waken him.  Finally I went to the kitchen to have supper.  Soon I heard a loud voice -- was Jacques trying to waken him again?  I went to the living room and found two strange men there, and Jacques off in a corner, trying to keep out of their way.
        "Who are you?" I asked the one who seemed to be in charge.
        "Ambulance," he said.  "Do you have his hospital discharge papers, or something about his case?"
        "No," I said, taken aback.  "What's happening?"
        "Stroke," he said.  "Do you have a list of his medications?"
        "No, but they're right over there."
        "How long has he been like this?"
         "I don't know.  Ask Jacques.  He's been here all the time, I haven't."
         "I'm not asking him," the man almost screamed.  "I'm asking you!"
          "And I'm telling you I don't know."
          "You're nervous," he said (though I wasn't), "and you're making me nervous, too.  So get out of the way and let us do our job."
          "Do it," I said, stepping back, eager to get rid of him.
          They strapped Bob into a chair they had brought, and took him out to the hall. 
          "Do you have a belt or some rope?" he asked from the top of the stairs.
          "What for?" I asked.
          "To tie his legs."
          "I'll look."
          I looked, finally found some rope, but by then they were down the stairs and gone.  Jacques had gone with them and hours later returned to tell me Bob was now in Lenox Hill Hospital. "Stroke," he confirmed, and as of now that's all I know.  The hospital will phone and I will give them his insurance info.  They must know the medications, since the ambulance men took them with him.  So now I wait.  But Lenox is an excellent hospital; he's in good hands.  I'm concerned, but I refuse to worry until I know more.  And I marvel at how fast you can get an ambulance in this city.  You phone, and they arrive within minutes.  And usually, though obviously not always, they are civil.

          It may seem odd to go from this subject to aphrodisiacs, but it's all a part of life.  

Nightshades and Aphrodisiacs

         This started out as a post about nightshades, but morphed into one about aphrodisiacs, which must mean something, though I’m not sure what.  We’ll start with nightshades: a slow start, but we’ll get to the real stuff soon enough.  The word itself, “nightshade,” has always fascinated me; it suggests something dark and sinister.  All the more so since “deadly nightshade” is another name for belladonna, a plant common in both the Old World and the New, whose leaves and berries are extremely poisonous. 

File:Atropa belladonna 003.JPG
Belladonna, also called Devil's Berries.
H. Zell

And if belladonna means “beautiful lady” in Italian, that only adds to the word’s mystery, suggesting something dangerously seductive, which isn’t so far off, since Italian women once used the juice from the plant to enlarge their eyes and make them more attractive.  So here is a plant that can both create beauty and kill.  No wonder the plant or its fruit has also been called devil’s berries, death cherries, naughty man’s cherries, and devil’s herb.  And if that isn’t sexy, what is?

         I have never encountered deadly nightshade in my hiking, but the wildflower of my acquaintance with the most haunting name is enchanter’s nightshade, with its suggestion of a sinister magician worthy of Swan Lake’s villain, that Harvey Weinstein of fairyland who held captive a bevy of enchanted ballerinas.  Alas, the plant itself, though common in the woods in summer, is humdrum in the extreme: a terminal stem of tiny white flowers above paired leaves likewise without distinction, and the plant isn’t even in the nightshade family.  So how did this impostor get its name?  According to Witchipedia (yes, it exists), it may have been used in ancient herbals and magical compendiums, though this is not certain.  Also, it grows in shady woods, avoids sunlight.  Another explanation: European herbalists once thought the sorceress Circe used it to turn Odysseus's crew into pigs.

File:Enchanter's nightshade (Circaea lutetiana ) - - 931362.jpg
Enchanter's nightshade: inconspicuous little
 flowers, and little round seed pods forming.


         So what plants are in fact in the nightshade family, or Solanaceae?  Many plants that have stimulating and medicinal powers, such as tobacco, a New World plant, and mandrake, a hallucinogen and narcotic found in the Mediterranean region.  Because of these powers, many nightshades have been viewed with suspicion, and yet we eat them.  The edible nightshades include many peppers, eggplant, potato, and tomato.  I shy away from hot peppers, having once overdone cayenne in a dish with scathing results to my palate, and as for eggplant, that glossy purple lump of a thing, often almost black, that I have often seen in the greenmarket, I have never messed with it, view it as alien to my interests and tastes.  But potato and tomato, which I also see at the greenmarket, cannot, and should not, be ignored.

         Both potato and tomato are denizens of the New World that came to Europe only after Columbus’s “discovery” of America brought a host of new foods to the Old World.  The words, in fact are right out of Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs: potatl and tomatl.  (This doesn’t quite exhaust my knowledge of Nahuatl, though it comes close.)  Long grown by the Incas in Peru, the potato was discovered by the conquistadors and taken back to Europe, where it slowly spread.  Sir Walter Raleigh is believed to have brought the potato back from the North America and planted it on his estate in Ireland.  He presented it to Queen Elizabeth and, as a result, it was featured in a royal banquet.  Alas, the uninformed cooks threw out the lumpy tubers and cooked the stems and leaves, which, being poisonous, made all the diners ill.  Not a good start for potatoes in England, but fortunately it didn’t cost Raleigh his head.  (That would come later.)

Yukon golds.  Great for mashing.  But an aphrodisiac???

         Elsewhere throughout Europe potatoes were at first considered weird, poisonous, and evil, allegedly causing leprosy, syphilis, scrofula, early death, and sterility, and for some reason were also feared as an aphrodisiac.  (See, we’re getting to it.)  That they grew underground had something to do with it; they were nicknamed “devil’s apples.”  Only in time were their virtues discovered.  The French today, of course, call them pommes de terre, “apples of the earth,” and, like most people, devour them readily.  (Why the apple was linked to the lowly potato in terminology escapes me, I see no connection whatsoever.)  I just rediscovered potatoes by baking some russets and then seasoning them with olive oil, salt, and pepper: the simplest of dishes, but delicious!

File:Hillview Farms red potatoes.jpg
Great for baking!
         The tomato too had trouble getting accepted in the Old World.  If the potato is a lumpy, dumpy tuber associated with, and bound to, the earth, the tomato is a round, usually bright red fruit that surely belongs in the upper regions of sunlight, not in the bowels of the earth.  I've never been partial to it -- a childhood hangup that I've never managed to get rid of -- but I'll admit that it looks far more enticing and sexy than the potato.


         The tomato may have been brought back to Spain by Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, and from there, like its lowly cousin, the potato, it spread elsewhere.  The French called it pomme d’amour (“love apple”) and the Italians pomodoro (“golden apple”), while in England and elsewhere it was at first thought to be poisonous and so acquired the name “devil’s food.”  Bright, smooth, and red with a navel, it was grown at first for decoration, but was also thought to be an aphrodisiac and as such was known in England too as the “love apple.”  One additional reason to view it with suspicion (especially in Protestant circles): it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible!   

         Whether the tomato is a fruit or a vegetable has long been debated.  The matter was finally considered in an 1893 Supreme Court case, when an importer wanted it classified as a fruit, because fruits had a lower import tax, while a tax collector insisted it was a vegetable.  Botanically, it is a fruit, being the ripened ovary of a flowering plant.  How a flower becomes a fruit I have witnessed when looking at a blackberry bramble, for the same plant may have five-petaled white flowers; flowers where the petals have dropped off, leaving a green swelling, the fertilized ovary, that vaguely suggests a blackberry; unripe red blackberries; and black, glistening, fully ripe berries just begging to be picked and consumed.  But botany be damned, said the court in its wisdom, labeling the tomato a vegetable, since it was cooked and eaten and commonly referred to as such.  How wonderful to have the black-robed solons of the highest court in the land decide such matters for us!

         Many foods other than nightshades have likewise been viewed as aphrodisiacs, but one wants to know why.  Consulting the Internet, that fountain of knowledge and wisdom, I have encountered the following, all promoted as ways to get it on or up in the kitchen:

·      Oysters, a food that both Casanova and Cleopatra loved, which surely is proof enough.  Not convinced?  Well, they’re also high in zinc, good for healthy sperm.
·      Watermelon, which some researchers, citing its effect on blood vessels throughout the body, hail as the new Viagra.
·      Chocolate, known as chocolatl to the Aztecs (them again!), who called cacao beans, from which chocolate is made, the nourishment of the gods.  If it’s good for them, what can’t it do for us?
·      Asparagus: take a good look at it, and you’ll know why.  Ditto bananas and celery.
·      Avocados, a name derived from the Nahuatl word ahuacatl, meaning “testicle”; take a look at two of them together and you’ll recognize Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
·      Pumpkin seeds: like oysters, good old zinc. 
·      Celery: researchers (them again, too) say it boosts the pheromone levels in men’s sweat, making them more attractive to women.  (Pheromone: a secreted or excreted chemical that triggers a social response in members of the same species.)  So sweat, guys, sweat!
·      Figs: Cleopatra (her again!) loved them, and some see a resemblance in them to the female sex organs.
·      Raw garlic may make your partner turn the other way in bed, but it whips up the libido.  (To calm down, try yogurt.)
·      Ginger: said to increase the blood flow in sex organs, and you know what that can lead to.
·      Vanilla, another import from those knowing Aztecs.  In the 18th century, doctors prescribed it to boost male potency, and of course we trust the profession.
·      Raw bull’s testicles.  (Available at your local pharmacy, no doubt.)

        But does any of this stuff work?  Having a healthy diet surely helps us have a good sex life, but beyond that, one is tempted to be skeptical, all the more so since the FDA, that pillar of wisdom, insists that no alleged aphrodisiac has been scientifically proven to be effective.  Far more significant is one’s state of mind, and that of your partner, too.  The best rule: if it works, it works.  What gets it on for one may not do it for another.  But beware of ads promising rejuvenated pep and the promise of fabulous sex; they've been around forever, implying aphrodisiac qualities, though with plausible legal deniability.

A 1926 ad by a company right here in dear old New York.
They promise men "youthful vigor" without ever mentioning "aphrodisiac."
          And now for a bit of youthful reminiscence.  When I was growing up, the magical whispered phrase among knowing young males was “Spanish fly,” said to turn virtuous females into sex-crazed wantons. 
A Spanish fly.  Lovely to look at, but beware of consuming it.

I never looked into the stuff, but today, thanks to the Internet, I’ve learned a lot about it.  Yes, there is such a thing as Spanish fly: a preparation made from a ground-up emerald-green beetle (Lytta vesicatoria) that really does seem to work, spunking up the male, though not the female.  But one can get too much of a good thing; even a little can produce a prolonged and often painful erection that, far from enabling a night of love, may require medical attention.  Also, greater doses can poison and irritate the urogenital tract and cause serious medical problems.  The Roman philosopher Lucretius, who should have known better, is said to have died of an overdose.  So keep away, guys, and try Viagra.  Or maybe chocolate-coated oysters stuffed with pumpkin seeds, avocado, and a touch of ginger; if anything can do it, that should.  Warning: this concoction is not FDA-approved; I haven’t tried it, nor do I plan to ever.  But good luck!

        One last thought: why “Spanish”?  The Internet doesn’t inform me, it just repeats the info above and tells me why I should learn Spanish.  But when I google Lytta vesicatoria, I learn that the beetle is found throughout southern Europe, which of course includes Spain.  I like the idea of a post of international appeal that begins with the Aztecs and ends up in Spain.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

Just released; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

                *                 *                 *                  *

Coming soon:  No idea.

©   2018   Clifford Browder

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