Who doesn't like tasting those pulpy, tender, and sweet gifts from nature?
There’s an undeniable association between food and eroticism; it's everywhere. From classical art to films, and social media, mainly in the form of emojis. We’re so used to the association of fruits with sensuality and sexuality that you probably encounter a reference to it at least once a day. Eating strawberries, for instance, is often seen as a seductive act that gets you in the mood; bananas symbolize the phallus, and papayas the vagina; even apples, the famous forbidden fruits of the Genesis, are a metaphor for sexual desire. We are surrounded by these luscious and sweet temptations, but there is one that is prevalent across all artistic disciplines and that is the fuzzy peach.
Dish of Peaches by Paul Cézanne (1894)
Perhaps one of the most ancient symbols of this fruit comes from ancient China, where peaches are thought to have originated. They represent longevity and in a few myths peaches were thought to bestow immortality on those who ate it, granting them eternal youth. Unlike other fruits that can be eaten even after or before they’re ripe, in the case of peaches, they’re basically only delicious when ripe, so this was also linked to an ideal of beauty. To this day, youth is still one of the most appealing traits in a person, and peaches remind us of that time that is wonderful but oh so brief.
Many fruits and flowers are associated with the beauty of womanhood, and peaches aren’t the exception. For centuries, peaches have been symbols of softness, sexuality, tenderness, love, femininity, and even fertility. According to Ernst and Johanna Lehner (Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees), peaches in many cultures are representations of female sexuality, mainly in relation to genitalia. In that way, for instance, in Japan peach blossoms were seen as the tree that bestowed life and immortality. If you take a look at Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage painting, he places a plate of peaches next to the couple as a symbol of love and fertility.
Peaches are a sensorial delight. Their taste and smell are tempting and not only that, they're smooth to the touch and their flesh is juicy that it drips down your chin once you bite into them. It is no wonder we want out skin to feel and smell like peaches and when aroused we want our skin tone to take on their blush tones. In these ancient cultures peach juice was tied to female arousal, and it makes sense, when you open up a ripe peach and its juices flow out, it is tempting to bite into it.
Resemblance to buttocks
Now, while it’s true that most of the time peaches refer to women, it's not always like that. Perhaps the most recent example of this is the highly erotic scene in Call Me by Your Name in which young Elio masturbates with a peach and then Oliver tries to eat it. Well, in the original movie, he actually eats it in one of the most beautiful and moving moments of the story. Here, the peach is a metaphor for the butt. But more than that, for Elio the fact that Oliver is willing to eat his semen is a demonstration of the love he has for him, which moves him deeply, to the point that he cries. As he recalls in the book, “I thought even lovemaking didn’t go so far…I could tell he was tasting it at that very instant. Something that was mine was in his mouth, more his than mine now.”
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Now, the idea of peaches representing homosexuality is neither exclusive to the movie nor a new idea, since it can actually be traced some centuries back. For a long time, peaches were a symbol of homosexuality, as expressed by Renaissance poet Francesco Berni in his Encomium to peaches:
All the fruits, in all the seasons,
such as apples ...
pears, plums, cherries and melons,
Are good for those that like them, dried and fresh;
but if I were to be a judge,
fall short of peaches.
Peaches were for a long time food for prelates,
but since everyone likes a good meal,
even friars, who fast and pray,
crave for peaches today.
Pears, plums, cherries, and melons were often associated with female body parts. At the same time, when he mentions the fresh attributes of these fruits he’s basically referring to the different types of sex, but at the end, he claims that his favorite is definitely pears. Well, and that joke at the end about friars gives you the answer to what he’s referring to.
They appeal to our senses.
Finally, and probably the most important point, it's how peaches appeal to our senses. Besides the softness to the touch, it also has a very satisfying element when it comes to smell and taste. Perhaps we should leave it to a poetry genius to put it in more elegant terms. As the Romantic poet John Keats once wrote, “talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine good God how fine. It went down soft, pulpy, slushy, oozy all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry.” Pleasure is the key here. It’s not only the fact that the fruit resembles an attractive part of the body, or that it's been culturally associated to femininity and sexuality: it’s much simpler than that. In Keats’ terms, it’s all about the soft and pulpy nature of peaches that appeal to one of our most basic instincts, pleasure through delicious foods.
Peaches by Claude Monet (1883)
As neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach explains (you can read more in the first article referenced below), there are some receptors in our brain connected to neurons and when our senses are activated, these receptors send signals to the brain cortex, which is basically the place where we register each stimulus often associated with pleasure.
As you can see, it's all a combination of biological and cultural facts what makes us associate this particular fruit to pleasure and sexuality. It’s no coincidence that after thousands of years we're still drawn to peaches and food in general, not only as a basic need for survival but also as one of the most pleasurable parts of our lives.
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Cover image by @alifranco_art