A couple of years ago, Lizzy Young, a vintage cookbook dealer based in Newport, Rhode Island, began to notice a growing market for erotic cookbooks — books that typically employ naughty visuals and heavily entendred recipes in the service of seduction through culinary prowess.
“Every time I put one up it sells really quick,” says Young. “The newer generation is interested in fun, kitschy, slapstick stuff.” These days, she adds, vintage cookbooks of this nature can go for up to $100 in her online shop, almost double what she could sell them for a few years ago. While it’s tempting to tie this current demand to the appeal of erotic cookbooks as gag gifts, that misses the role they play as cultural artifacts of changing attitudes toward sex and sexuality throughout American history.
According to Katharina Vester, a professor of history at American University, it can be hard to define what qualifies as an erotic cookbook, since literature linking food and sex dates back to ancient times. But to Vester, the author of A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities, the erotic cookbook’s modern era began in the 1950s with the launch of Playboy’s food and drinks column, which the magazine subsequently spun into a series of cookbooks. (Food & Wine, for what it’s worth, began its life in 1978 as a Playboy supplement.)
“I would argue that the erotic cookbook is an invention of the male cook,” Vester says — specifically a midcentury “playboy bachelor-type who doesn’t yet have a wife to cook for him, so he performatively shows his dominance and independence through pseudo-gourmet cooking for seduction.” As such, midcentury erotic cookbooks “were all about insinuating that if you cook for a woman, you can get her to bed,” she explains. As Thomas Mario, Playboy’s erstwhile food and drinks editor, once wrote, “The smell of burning apple wood and the crackling fire beneath the thick prime steaks makes her secretly swoon.”
Due to the era’s censorship and restrictive societal and cultural codes, cookbooks with a premise of food as a pathway to sex weren’t explicitly sexual. Where titles aimed at men framed cooking as a nudge-nudge-wink-wink way to get laid, those targeting women upheld marital bliss as the ultimate prize. According to Vester, this impulse to cast food and cooking as a “stand-in for heteronormative sexuality” dates back to the end of the 19th century, a time when there was a cultural push for unmarried women to use cooking “to find husbands, and for married women to find ways to keep their husbands.”
That said, there were some exceptions. Twelve years before she became the New York Times’ first female restaurant critic, Mimi Sheraton authored The Seducer’s Cookbook, a 1963 tome containing, as she wrote, “helpful and hilarious hints for situations into which men may lure women and vice versa.” Sheraton casts women as equal-opportunity seducers, something more or less unheard of at the time. “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,” she writes. “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.” Sheraton treats seduction cooking as perfectly acceptable outside of marriage, and offers ideas for what to make the morning after. There are cheeky illustrations of topless women sprinkled among the recipes for strawberries chantilly, shrimp bisque, and dandelion salad. Perhaps the most notable thing about this very notable book is the fact it was published at all.
In the ’70s, as sexual freedom filtered through American culture and the modern porn industry began to boom, erotic cookbooks also enjoyed something of a renaissance: Sex Pots…And Pans (1970), Fanny Hill’s Cook Book (1971), Lewd Food: The Complete Guide to Aphrodisiac Edibles (1974), Aphrodisiac Cookbook: Meals to Pep Up Your Love Life (1975), and Food for Lovers (1977) were just a few of the many titles published that decade. Some were campy, some pornographic, and some veered toward prudish, opting for coded language about love rather than direct discussions of seduction.
Lewd Food, which falls at the campy/pornographic end of the spectrum, describes itself as a book for “bawdy love games from stove to mattress” as well as for the “sex maniac’s quick weightloss lust diet.” At the more demure end is Aphrodisiac Cookery (1970), which accompanies its recipe for simmered milk with honey with a description of sweets as “proper fare for the sweetheart,” able to open the “body and soul of the receiver.” Similarly, the 1970 Lovers Dining — written by Irena Chalmers, a prolific and award-winning cookbook author — contains recipes that wouldn’t be out of place on the typical Valentine’s Day restaurant menu (clams casino, apricot parfait) but no outright sexual elements. Its intent is largely signaled by its title.
Although erotic cookbooks, with the exception of Playboy’s titles, have remained on the fringes of the cookbook publishing industry, today’s aficionados have nudged them ever so slightly toward more mainstream appreciation. You can find them on Instagram, where the account @70sdinnerparty posts vintage cookbook covers with names like Cooking in the Nude for Golf Lovers (clothes-free cooking, for the record, isn’t inherently sexual), and through cookbook sellers like Lizzy Young and Brooklyn’s Archestratus Books and Food. Meanwhile, the demand for bakeries making sex-themed treats, though not a new concept, is surging again.
The genre’s legacy has seeped into unlikely corners of popular culture. To help create the look of the titular magazine for Minx, HBO’s show about a fictional 1970s porn magazine for women, designer Elizabeth Goodspeed looked to her collection of ’70s-era romantic and erotic cookbooks, which she admires for their illustrative elements. “I’ve always been interested in collecting work that is hedonistic,” she says. “Food and sex, things that tap into base parts of being a human, in design tend to be dialed-up and kitschy more than other areas.”
Illustration was a general trend across the cookbook industry in the ’70s but one particularly well-suited to the genre, given its content and limited budgets. According to Goodspeed, the graphic design elements that distinguish the bulk of the era’s erotic cookbooks track with its corresponding trends in illustration, which was dominated by the psychedelia-tinged style of illustrators like Peter Max and Push Pin Studios. The 1979 Aphrodisia: A Guide to Sexual Food, Herbs, and Drugs, prefaces recipes intended to make readers “horny, hungry, and happy” with an illustrated cover that shows a naked man and woman sprouting from flowers that grow from a plate.
Charming as they can be, erotic cookbooks are not without their (sexist) baggage — just like many documents of our changing sexual mores. Many of them, no matter the era, are written through the male gaze, and for a cisgendered-heteronormative audience. As Vester notes, the erotic cookbooks marketed to men promote the notion of women being discardable and ingestible, not unlike a meal itself.
The problem, Emily Contois points out, isn’t confined to the erotic cookbook genre: it’s in the “dude masculinity” that fills the pages of many cookbooks aimed at men. “We tend to think of men cooking at home as egalitarian, as sharing food labor, but these ‘men’s cookbooks’ show how that sense of equal power doesn’t actually materialize,” says Contois, author of Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture. That failure is perfectly (if unfortunately) encapsulated by this Amazon review of The Playboy Gourmet: “My first impression of this book was, ‘Damn, where are all the naked ladies’…If you are single and like to cook and want to have sex with women you cook for then buy this book.”
That isn’t to say women haven’t exercised agency within the erotic cookbook genre. Along with Sheraton’s The Seducer’s Cookbook, titles such as the aforementioned Sex Pots…And Pans, Food For Love: What to Eat and Drink to Arouse Your Erotic Power (1968), and Dirty Dining: A Cookbook and More for Lovers (1993) attempt to position women as being in charge of their sexuality, through cooking.
But that doesn’t mean they should be used as a mirror for contemporary progressive ideas. “Some of the earlier erotic cookbooks were in some ways radical, but don’t necessarily stand the same test of time,” says Rachel Hope Cleves, a history professor who is writing a book about food and sexuality, with a section about the history of erotic cookbooks. She adds that we perhaps “ask too much of them,” to fit in today’s feminism.
Whatever their failings, erotic cookbooks — much like the broader erotica genre — can also function as an outlet for marginalized people to express themselves and find empowerment. Vester, who, like Cleves, has written about the history of the queer cookbook, points to the 1998 Lesbian Erotic Cookbook as an example: Written by and for women, it features recipes intended to nourish, along with photographs of naked female bodies that reject notions of mainstream beauty standards. Or consider The Men of Fire Island Present Hot Cookin, its pages scattered with photographs of partially nude gay men; published in 1994, amid the AIDS epidemic, it reads as a defiantly joyous celebration of body positivity. (Young, for her part, says it continues to sell well for her shop.)
Self-empowerment is similarly a focus for the new generation interested in vintage cookbooks. “Some of what our zine is trying to do is turn those tropes [of cooking to get a husband] on their heads and endorse baking for our own hedonistic pleasure, instead of thinking about it as the sort of simple thing to be offered up to a husband or as a mode of seduction,” Tanya Bush, a baker and the co-founder of the self-published Cake Zine, whose first issue is called “Sexy Cake,” told Eater.
That kind of sex positivity has found its way into the food media, too. After leaving her job at the food blog the Takeout at the start of the year, the James Beard Award-nominated writer Allison Robicelli decided to bet on herself and start what she calls “a serialized NSFW food-centric erotic soap opera, with recipes” in the form of a Substack newsletter. “It’s like Fifty Shades erotica with food,” Robicelli explains. It’s been especially cathartic for her to create content about women 40 and older, who are too often left out of horny discourse.
Now, Robicelli is working on an erotic cookbook that she hopes to sell to a publisher. “Everyone knows food can be disastrous in the bedroom, [but] I love that playfulness and silliness,” she says — it’s something, she adds, that can be missing from food publications. Robicelli imagines that the recipes in her forthcoming cookbook will diverge from the conventions of what qualifies as horny food. “It goes beyond oysters and that kind of thing,” she says of aphrodisiacs. Later, over email, she offers a case in point: “A sloppy sandwich is the sexiest food known to humankind. Seriously, eat a pastrami sandwich in bed and tell me how good it feels. (You don’t need a partner for this).”
If Robicelli succeeds, her cookbook will be one of the scant few contemporary examples of the genre; so far, the younger generation’s love of vintage titles hasn’t translated to a demand for new ones. And no matter how much erotic cookbooks may wax and wane in popularity, they will emphatically remain not for everyone. When approached for comment for this story, the owner of a lauded New York City vintage cookbook shop replied, “Thanks, for asking, but—ick!” Nevertheless, she was later kind enough to share a list of titles that might be worth exploring.
“And,” she wrote, “that’s all I have to say on the subject (gag).”
Clay Hickson is an illustrator living in Los Angeles, California. He is also the owner/operator of Caboose, a small publisher of mediocre quality.