Among aphrodisiacs known to the Romans, herba salax was a favorite; Ovid and Martial both mention it. It’s nothing other than rocket or arugula. In 2007, President Obama famously was labeled a snob when he complained that Whole Foods charged too much for arugula. Arugula was thought to be a trendy designer lettuce. In fact it’s a humble, easy to grow, delicious weed. And according to the Romans, it gives you a boost in the bedroom, I suppose because of its sparkling, peppery flavors.
This week, the story of James and Laura’s aphrodisiac dinner party continues, with an unexpected entry in the list of sexy foods: celery.
9. Lecherous Lester
They were, in fact, a smallish group, and Tabitha supposed this was because James didn’t want to cook for more than eight. She felt honored to have been included, when she’d only known Laura for a couple of weeks. Besides James and Laura, there were Galen and his knockout blonde wife Cissy, who had a figure like a Barbie doll; Nigel and Ruth; and another singleton, James’ editor at the Daily Messenger. This was a thickly built, saturnine man named Lester Lemke. Shaking his cool hand, Tabitha felt a bit self-conscious, as they were the only two at the party who weren’t paired up. He seemed well aware of this too, because he monopolized her before dinner, leering at her breasts, and cracking lame jokes about how many oysters could substitute for one Viagra. He also dropped a few cryptic remarks about Cissy, making Tabitha uncomfortable. While her own decolletage was not as lavish as Cissy’s, they were the two women in the room with the largest busts, and Lester seemed to be preoccupied with their respective necklines.
She excused herself to visit the bath, and met Ruth as she was coming out. They stepped into the little library space at the back of the apartment. “What’s the deal with Les?” she asked in a low voice. “He’s giving me the creeps.”
“Yeah, he’s James’ boss, so he had to invite him, but what a putz, eh? And there’s bad blood,” said Ruth. “Cissy went to the Tribeca Film Festival and had a major wardrobe malfunction. One of the paparazzi got a picture, and Lester printed it. That was three years ago, and she wasn’t married to Galen yet, but he’s never forgotten it.”
Tabitha was unsurprised. Galen looked to her like a man with a very long memory. “Well, I’m stuck with Lester for the evening,” she said.
“Oh no. You’ll see. James and Laura never let couples sit together. And they won’t seat Les near Cissy. So I’ll probably have the pleasure of dining next to that nudnik,” said Ruth with resignation.
Ruth’s predictions proved accurate. Les was seated at one end of the table in a place of honor, with Ruth on his right and Laura on his left. At the other end was James with Cissy on his right and Tabitha on his left. In the two middle positions were Galen and Nigel. As Tabitha had guessed, the meal turned out to be an all-aphrodisiac menu.
The appetizers, laid out on the sideboard, had been chili-glazed nuts and a goat cheese from upstate New York accompanied by a luscious fig spread. When they sat down, Laura served the Shagger’s Soup, which was a velvety blend of celery, potato, onion, champagne, and cumin. Celery, she explained, had been the tonic of choice for such notable lovers as Casanova and Madame de Pompadour.
“Celery contains androstenone, the first mammalian pheromone to be identified,” added James.
“Boar’s saliva,” agreed Les. “When sows get a whiff of it, they assume the stance.” Ruth rolled her eyes, but she ate all of her soup. So did Tabitha.
Next was a platter of asparagus topped with Béarnaise sauce, which Laura set before James, kissing the top of his head. He caught her around the waist, and dipped his index finger in the sauce, offering it to her. She took his hand in hers and sucked the Béarnaise from his finger as she gazed into his eyes. It lasted only a few seconds, and most of the table was occupied in conversation, but Tabitha was seated right next to James, and she was witness to the look that passed between him and Laura. They may inhabit separate apartments, she thought, but they’ll share a bed tonight. James apologized to the table for the fact that asparagus was not strictly in season, saying that it was a dish he couldn’t leave off an aphrodisiac menu.
French wines flowed freely, and Tabitha saw with pride that her Tavel was the one James chose for the asparagus, always a tricky pairing. The next course was smoked Scottish salmon rolled with caviar and crème fraîche, followed by the salad, of peppery sharp arugula with pine nuts and pistachios. Laura explained that this was a recipe from her friends in the Classics department at Parnell State.
“The ancient Romans called arugula the herba salax, or Lester’s plant. I mean lecher’s plant!” she quickly corrected herself, blushing to the roots of her hair. James and Galen found this Freudian slip highly entertaining. As for Les, he only shrugged, seeming unabashed.
The dessert was a soufflé of dark chocolate and ginger, the last thing to go into the oven. It baked while they were enjoying the dinner, filling the apartment with its rich aromas, and emerged to be sprinkled by Laura with bits of crystallized ginger and served with bourbon-laced whipped cream. The dinner felt luxurious, but the servings had been small and the dishes light. Tabitha approved. After all, too much satiety might hinder the lovemaking that was supposed to follow. Once again, she felt a slight awkwardness about being the only single guest apart from Lecherous Lester.
After dinner, the women began to clear up, and Tabitha tried to help, but four in the kitchen proved to be one too many. “Pour yourself an Armagnac and check out the terrace,” suggested Laura. “I haven’t seen you out there yet, and it’s a great view.” Tabitha wished she could manage a discreet look at James’ bookshelves, but since Nigel had already ensconced himself in the cramped library with a book, she wandered over to the terrace.
Here Lester and Galen were sitting across from each another at a tiny circular table with the bottle of 12-year-old Redbreast between them, while James stood at the railing, smoking a cigar. She joined him and silently sipped her drink, looking out towards Battery Park.
“Another,” she heard Les say behind her, in a challenging tone. She glanced back and realized that the two seated men were glaring at each other. Galen poured two more shots of the Irish whiskey, and they threw it back.
“Les, are you trying to drink Porteous under the table?” James’ tone was jovial, but he looked a little worried. “That’s inadvisable. He’s got a hollow leg, this one.”
“Well, I’ve got a third leg, so maybe that makes us even,” said Les softly, his eyes on Tabitha. She took her eyes from him in time to see the look of disgust that passed between James and Galen at this crude remark. Both were accomplished flirts, as Tabitha had discovered at dinner. She had tried to give an equal share of her attention to Cissy, who was considerably more intelligent than her trophy-wife looks suggested. But the lion’s share of the conversation was claimed by James, who told titillating stories of the crime underworld in London, and Galen, who relished her intimate reactions to his books. Still, both men had a certain old-world courtliness about them, and she could tell they disapproved of Les’ loutish behavior.
“Easy now, friend,” said Galen in an admonitory tone.
“No need to pretend that you and I are friends,” retorted Lester, holding out his shot glass for a refill. “I know you had a word with your cronies after the Tribeca incident. They all pulled their ads from the Messenger.”
“Quite right. Initially I planned to finish both you and the Messenger, but I let you stay in business because I have friends who work there.” Galen gestured in James’ direction, and then downed his shot. He looked completely cool and sober; a mocking smile touched his lips. Tabitha glanced at James, who was regarding the two combatants with a look of barely hidden amusement. She realized that the disagreement was serious, but that there was also an element of playacting, of masculine bravado, which the men were enjoying. Perhaps her own presence had stoked it further, but she was too curious about the outcome to leave now.
It was Les’ turn to swallow his shot, and he looked worse for the wear at this point. He stared into Galen’s serene face and said, “You must drink like a fish to be able to put it back that way, Scotty.” No answer came; Galen waited patiently for him to empty his glass. Tabitha noted that the bottle, full when Galen had mixed her cocktail, was now nearly empty.
Les raised the glass to his lips, but his hand suddenly arrested itself in midair as inspiration struck. “After all,” he said slyly, “not much separates a Scot from a sot.”
Galen’s expression didn’t waver, but he nodded in agreement. “Only the table.”
Tabitha nearly choked on her Armagnac. “My God. That’s one of the oldest drinking jokes there is. It goes back to the Carolingians!” In fact, a famous Celtic scholar had delivered the setdown to Charles the Bald, Charlemagne’s grandson.
Galen looked up at her, a smile of pure joy on his face, as James began to laugh in delight. “I know. There isn’t a Scot— or an Irishman, for that matter— who doesn’t know that joke. I’ve been waiting thirty years for someone to set me up.”
Having downed his shot while they were talking, Les was looking distinctly leaden. Suddenly, he slumped over the tiny table, knocking the bottle to the floor.
“Uh oh,” said James. “Come on Porteous, give me a hand and we’ll put him in my bed to sleep it off. Laura will take pity on my misfortune and let me bunk with her.” Clearly he was looking forward to this prospect, and Tabitha realized it was time to leave.
“Nonsense, my friend. I’ll see him home for you,” said Galen.
“Not after you’ve knocked back that much. I’m calling your lovely bride to take you home now.”
“Ah. My lovely bride may be displeased with me. I fear I’ve put myself hors de combat for the evening,” said Galen, looking sheepish now. “And after your special dinner, too.”
“A shame, that,” agreed James in a commiserating tone. And then bracingly, “But surely it was worth it!” Together they hoisted Les from the little garden seat and marched him into the apartment. Shortly thereafter, James re-emerged and conducted Tabitha to the sideboard, where he inscribed a copy of his book for her in an elegant but robust hand. Goodbyes and thanks were exchanged all around, and Tabitha left the brownstone accompanied by Nigel and Ruth, still dazed at all she had experienced.
As they walked in the direction of the Metro stop, Nigel said, “Well, I’m quite glad the evening’s over. I feel absolutely knackered.”
Ruth smiled and laid hold of Nigel’s psychedelic tie. “It’s by no means over yet, bubbeleh. Prepare to be absolutely knickered.”
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Charles the Bald, Holy Roman Emperor in the mid-ninth century, wittily asked a visiting Celtic scholar: Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum? John Scotus bested him by replying, Tantum tabulum. The joke translates unusually well and is included in many compilations of anecdotes about Scotsmen. What is less well-known is that John Scotus had the surname “Eriugena” which means “born in Ireland.” In fact most of the churchmen given the name “Scotus” in Medieval Europe were Irish, not Scots.
Tabitha’s co-worker Ruth is fond of Yiddish expressions. In this chapter she uses putz, which means a jerk (lit. an unclean male member) and bubbeleh, an affectionate term for a boy-child.