When we launched our March-April reading theme, this was one of the novels that I knew I would share – as it also coincides quite neatly with the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.
Written by: Isabel Allende Drawings by: Robert Shekter Recipes: Panchita Llona
Published by: Harper Perennial, 1998
Book photos taken by me.
My early 20s was filled with Allende’s visions in her Eva Luna, The Stories of Eva Luna, The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows. When I moved here in Singapore, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that she wrote a middle grade series, City of the Beasts which I also read and collected. While I read Books 1 and 2, I have yet to read the third book Forest of the Pygmies. When I joined the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, I figured now is as good a time as any to read Allende’s food memoir, Aphrodite.
Unlike her other magical realist novels, this one has non-fiction resonances, brought about by her extensive research on aphrodisiacs – which is at the heart of this novel. However, as is Allende’s trademark, she imbues the telling with naughty humour, amorous twists, and such luscious serpentine language that the reader sees how conjoined gastronomic pleasure is with eroticism.
The really intriguing aspect of the novel is how it is also complemented by surreal images such as the ones you see above, along with the nymph-like drawings of Robert Shekter, and the infallible recipes of Panchita Llona, who as it happens is Allende’s very own mother, all woven together by literary agent Carmen Balcells.
The first few pages of the novel made me laugh out loud, as it is fairly evident how much pleasure Allende had in writing this novel, along with her creative collaborators who sampled the dishes for scientific purposes of course:
Once we had our plan, each of us got to work, and to the degree that nymphs, satyrs, and other mythological creatures streamed from Robert’s pen, fabulous dishes from Panchita’s kitchen, mathematical calculations from Carmen’s fertile brain, and my investigations from the library, our spirits changed. Robert’s aches and pains diminished, and he’s thinking of buying a sailboat. Panchita stopped saying her beads, Carmen gained a few pounds, and I tattooed a shrimp on my navel. (p. 16)
While my response to the book was not as extreme as Allende and her collaborators, I enjoyed the book thoroughly – and this is stated by someone who is a total klutz in the kitchen. While I did find the narrative somewhat loosely-threaded and more meandering than usual, I appreciated how Allende tried to be as exhaustive as she can – by touching on almost all aspects of culinary aesthetics: from cooking in the nude to forbidden herbs. She even made mention of Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Conger Chowder.
I believe that what would prove to be of immense interest to food enthusiasts would be the last part of the novel where Allende shared her mother Panchita’s aphrodisiac recipes with Allende’s own commentaries. It is divided into six different sections: Sauces, Hors d’œuvres, Soups, Appetizers, Main Course, and Desserts (see below):
She did warn readers that she made a few changes to her mother’s recipe:
Where Panchita wrote three drops of liquor, I put a hearty splash, because in my experience cyanide is the only thing that produces an effect with three drops. Perhaps the problem is generational: in my mother’s time, gentlemen reacted to subtle stimuli, but in mine you have to hit them over the head to get their attention.
What really left a mark on me, though, was how she spoke so much truth about what would essentially work with women:
Professional lovers, and I am referring not just to lotharios like Casanova, Valentino, and Julio Iglesias, but to the quantities of men who collect amorous conquests to prove their virility with quantity – since quality is a question of luck – know that with women the best aphrodisiac is words. (emphasis mine)
This is a book that you should read with girlfriends – there is so much to discuss, laugh about, experiment with, and savour in this wench-of-a-read.