As Valentine’s day rolls again, it is interesting to ponder the connection between food and love. A lot of us love food, but of interest here is the association between food and the love of other humans. Let’s begin with a bit of a historical review.
Starting with Valentine’s Day
It appears that our modern celebration of love had something of a gory beginning. It is likely that, in an attempt to rid the world of a 6th Century BC pagan ceremony involving slapping women with blood-soaked hides of sacrificed goats and dogs to promote fertility, St Valentine’s day emerged as a Christian replacement. Consistent with the pagan ceremony, however, the modern celebration revolved around themes of romance, fertility, love and relationships (and not necessarily in that order).
Confusingly, St Valentine was not one person; the name Valentinus was from the Latin word for worthy, strong or powerful, so it became quite an attractive title to many men throughout the centuries (well, at least to those who subscribed to the theory that a name defined you). There are at least a dozen St Valentines, along with a Pope (but little seems known of him and, as he served only 40 days in the year AD 827, he can rightfully be forgotten). Technically, should you have the stamina for such frivolity, you could celebrate St Valentine’s day many times a year. A handy hint for anyone who forgets February 14th – there is also July 6, July 25, July 30, November 3 or January 7 as days when other St Valentine’s are celebrated (and could be used as handy back-up plan as in: “I didn’t forget, I am choosing to celebrate on the 25th of July in recognition of the only female St Valentine”).
In continuing with the baffling history, the actual St Valentine, for whom ‘the’ day is named and who is responsible for the many billions of roses, whole forests of greeting cards and billions of tonnes of chocolate purchased each year, is probably two men. It appears that St Valentine (well, one of them) was executed for undertaking Christian marriage ceremonies. History would suggest, then, that Valentine’s day is not very romantic: ceremonies to replace animal sacrifice, men assuming powerful names, and executions are never messages in hallmark cards. Never fear, there is more to this saint, that is actually linked to food.
St Valentine (the concept, not the actual person(s)) is also the patron saint of honeybees and that is a bit more interesting. Honeybees are, of course, vital for much of our modern primary food production (horticulture, viticulture, agriculture). They also produce honey, which is sweet; and people seem to like to be sweet, eat sweet things and call other people ‘honey’ on Valentine’s day, so it seems an (almost) logical association. That logic falls down for the other things for which St Valentine oversees – he is also the patron saint of epilepsy, the plague, fainting and travel. When portfolios of areas to be saint over were drawn, St Valentine certainly drew an eclectic mix.
The strangeness continued after the death of the-man-that-is-the-one St Valentine. His flower-patterned skull rests in Rome, other parts of his skeletal remains can be found in Ireland, Scotland, France, Czech Republic and England.
So, how did a Saint of many things (spread over many places) come to have a day dedicated to him, the consumption of chocolate, and the pursuit of love? The answer may lie in the work of the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer who, in 1375 wrote of birds and humans coming together to find a mate (within their own species of course!) on the 14th of February.
Food traditions around Valentine’s Day are associated with the finding of love, but before we finish with the history lesson, it is interesting to note that intentionally, or not, the colours associated with Valentine’s Day are linked back to that ancient pagan festival – the red representing blood and white symbolic of the milk used to clean the blood up (it also symbolises new life and procreation).
A day about food?
Multiple dates, multiple saints, sacrifice and plague - how then did we come to have a day about food? There are different schools of thought – undoubtedly, one is around the perceived aphrodisiac properties of certain foods (more about that later); the other is that there was a perfect confectionary storm. Around this time, prudish Victorians liked to shower each other with gifts. A young gentleman named Richard Cadbury who worked for a particular chocolate company saw a marketing opportunity and produced heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. The rest, as they say, is history.
Chocolate’s association with affairs of the heart remains strong. In the US, it is estimated that the spend on Valentine’s Day is $18.2 billion (or just over $136 per person) and of that, about $1.7 billion is spent on candy alone. That’s a lot of heart shaped boxes. While chocolate is a romantic treat, the claim that it has aphrodisiac properties are a little spurious. Researchers found that while chocolate contains two chemicals associated with both sexual desire and with falling in love, they were present in such small quantities that the consumption of chocolate was unlikely to have any impact on romance.
The Goddess of Love
The Greek Goddess, Aphrodite, was born of the sea and, along with the birth of the goddess of love, so too, was the association between seafood and romance born. Additionally, her name gave the basis to the term aphrodisiac – the concept of food that is more likely to ‘get you in the mood’ for romance and which is often associated with both great hope and considerable giggling.
Oysters, sea urchin, lobster, salmon, shrimp, tuna, mussels, abalone, and clams are just a few seafoods considered potential aphrodisiacs. While some of these have got onto the list because of inherent chemical properties, some have because of their, ahem, shape. Which then takes us to another area of ‘love food’ – those that are considered to be ‘inspirational’ because of their physical appearance. This category includes carrots, asparagus, figs and artichokes. While a carrot and asparagus salad is a healthy dinner option, the pursuit of love has seen some weird and, not so wonderful, concoctions. Serving up a side of cobra blood or baboon urine seems as far from romantic as possible, and sadly, other extracts such as that from rhino horn have seen the extinction and endangerment of both animal species and plants.
As future generations look back on our strange obsession with one-day of romance and its association with over-consumption of foods steeped in folklore, will they laugh at our empty consumerism? For this writer there is a very simple ritual on February 14 (it’s actually identical to the other 364 days of the year) and it involves a coffee grinder, milk, a coffee machine and a few moments of noise. No pithy messages or heart shaped boxes to be seen. Bliss.