Brain Pickings

The Seducer’s Cookbook: A Vintage Guide to the Lost Art of Seduction

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“Seduction … is becoming as much of a lost art as hand-caning and bookbinding. But while those two crafts can be replaced by machine work, seduction, if it is not done ‘by hand,’ will not be done at all.”

As a lover of unusual cookbooks and inventive recipes — from The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook to Modern Art Desserts to the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook to Patti Smith’s lettuce soup for starving artists — I was delighted to come upon The Seducer’s Cookbook (public library). This amusing 1962 gem by legendary food critic Mimi Sheraton, which falls somewhere between Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts and The Art of Kissing, presents a collection of “helpful and hilarious hints for situations into which men may lure women and vice versa,” including drink and dining menus, décor, dress, and dialogue. Gracing the book’s pages are illustrations by the great Paul Coker, who contributed to iconic counterculture magazine MAD and illustrated the wonderful 1968 volume MAD Better or Verse.

Sheraton sets the scene:

What we are concerned with here is the delectable and subtle art of luring, tempting, enticing, leading someone into going to bed with you in the most delightful way possible. For if the seduction is planned artfully, it can whet your sexual appetite in the same way that a piquant hor d’oeuvre prepares your palate for the main course to come.

Though it is true people are getting into bed with each other every day, seduction, as opposed to pushing, pulling, pleading and promising, is becoming as much of a lost art in America as hand-caning and bookbinding. But while those two crafts can be replaced by machine work, seduction, if it is not done “by hand,” will not be done at all.

She enumerates her three main goals:

I am for the game — as much fun, and often more, than the prize; hence this book for the following reasons:

  1. To enable men to get the answer they want — Yes.
  2. To give women a better reason for saying it.
  3. To keep America from becoming, sexually, a have-not nation.

But behind this amusingly lewd and seemingly superficial premise lies a deeper meditation on gender politics and women’s empowerment in the Mad Men era — published months before The Feminine Mystique turned the tide and a decade before the second wave of feminism was in full swing. Sheraton challenges the era’s assumptions in a wonderfully heartening way:

The first question to be answered if we are to get anywhere is: Just exactly who is seducing whom? If we are to believe the editors (male) of the American College Dictionary we must assume that only men seduce women, else why the definition “to induce (a woman) to surrender her chastity”? Even masculine vanity in its most extreme form should permit the editors’ minds to allow as how sometimes a man is seduced — perhaps even to the extent of adding the definition “to induce (a man) to lead (a woman) astray.”

She argues for seduction as a gender-blind art, but one the mastery of which is as intricate as it is fruitful:

The whole thing becomes a kind of round robin, and if it is hard to tell the seducer from the seduced (everyone wants to be both), it is important for all of us to be on our toes, to develop our seductive proficiencies so we can play our roles properly should the need arise.

Sheraton even flips certain gender-perception conventions around to give the stereotypical pop-culture male more dimension, arguing against the idea that getting laid is his only consideration:

He has his ego, and nothing deflates it more than the thought that a woman’s sole interest in him is sexual. This may not sound plausible, but it’s one of the best-kept male secrets. Just let a man think any woman he’s at all interested in would have gone to bed with any other presentable male who chanced by, and he is enraged and starts competing. He will immediately begin to turn hand-springs on her lawn (intellectually and even physically), trying to convince her he’s really a pretty special guy — out of bed as well as in. This is where his talents as a seducer will stand him in good deal.

But what makes the relationship between food and sex so compelling, after all? Sheraton writes:

The urge to eat and the urge to procreate are basic, natural and deliciously intertwined … and certainly no other method of seduction is as healthful or nourishing. No matter what else may go wrong, at least you’ve had a good meal.

It may be worth noting here the three sorts of appetite described by Dumas père in his Dictionary of Cuisine — as applicable to sexual hunger as to gastronomic.

  1. Appetite that comes from hunger. It makes no fuss over the food that satisfies it. If it is great enough, a piece of raw meat will appease it as easily as a roasted pheasant or a woodcock.
  2. Appetite aroused, hunger or no hunger, by a succulent dish appearing at the right moment, illustrating the proverb that hunger comes with eating.
  3. The type of appetite that is roused at the end of a meal when after normal hunger has been satisfied by the main courses, and the guest is truly ready to rise without regret, a delicious dish holds him to the table with a final tempting of his sensuality.

Sheraton goes on to offer several menus for various occasions and scenarios — from morning-after breakfast to seduction outside marriage to dumping someone by serving leftovers. Here’s a sampling from a menu for seducing young lovers:

STRAWBERRIES CHANTILLY

Wash ½ pint strawberries, drain on paper toweling, hull them and cut lengthwise into quarters. Leave 2 of the nicest berries uncut. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon Cointreau, and a little sugar if they are sour, and chill them for ½ hour. Beat ½ cup heavy sweet cream until it is stiff, adding ¼ teaspoon sugar and the tiniest drop of rose water to it halfway through the whipping. Fold berries into the cream, pile into two individual serving dishes and top each with a whole strawberry. Chill for 1 hour before serving.

The Seducer’s Cookbook is delectable and diverting from cover to cover. Pair it with this fascinating read on ancient aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs.

Thanks, Kaye

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