Book Review: Sex on the Kitchen Table

The romance between plants and your food

Vulgar, dirty, and exposed–these descriptors may come to mind upon reading the title of Norman Ellstrand’s new book. However, in Sex on the Kitchen Table: The Romance of Plants and Your Food, Ellstrand actually illustrates a much more demure topic: the importance of understanding the relationship we have with the food we consume.

Each chapter highlights a specific crop, seamlessly melding its history, anatomy, and spe­cial reproduction system. Using humorous metaphors and a distinctly easygoing voice, Ell­strand discusses the reproduction, economics, and politics surrounding the future of each plant, culminating in a delectable homemade recipe. “I can’t pick just one to be called my favorite,” Ellstrand said. Ellstrand gives human-like sexuality and mechanisms to each plant: the bisexual tomato plant, for example, self-pollinates using its flowers. Though playful, each recipe demonstrates our exploitation of plant sexuality.

Ellstrand explores the complex, twisted history of–as well as humanity’s influence be­hind–each plant’s reproduction system, revealing that the foods we eat evolved from very different looking plants thousands of years ago. Currently a professor at the University of California, Riverside, Ellstrand teaches a class called “California Cornucopia,” where he utilizes fruits mentioned in his book, such as the sterile banana, to teach plant biology. “You can’t understand why sex is important without examining something without sex,” Ellstrand said.

Additionally, Ellstrand illuminates the potential problems that may arise in these vegetable sexual reproduction systems. For instance, when a plant possesses only “female” or “male” reproductive parts, it runs into self-incompatibility issues and thus, cannot reproduce.

While Ellstrand wrote Sex on the Kitchen Table, his second book, to be humorous and casu­al pleasure reading, his first book, Dangerous Liaisons, was a scholarly science book directed at policy makers, selling less than nine hundred copies in fifteen years. Although he feared that his colleagues would criticize Sex on the Kitchen Table for being unscientific, the gener­al public loved the simple, beautiful analogies he employed to describe biological functions of plants in this book. For example, Ellstrand said, “Tomatoes are self-fertile individuals


have the potential to serve as both mother and father to one or more of their kids.”

This book will not only change your perspective on tomatoes, bananas, avocados, beets, and squash, but it will also morph your view of vegetables into the erotic plants that they truly are, opening your eyes to observe the nature around you as perhaps a bit spicier.