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Sex on the Kitchen Table

The Romance of Plants and Your Food

At the tips of our forks and on our dinner plates, a buffet of botanical dalliance awaits us. Sex and food are intimately intertwined, and this relationship is nowhere more evident than among the plants that sustain us. From lascivious legumes to horny hot peppers, most of humanity’s calories and other nutrition come from seeds and fruits—the products of sex—or from flowers, the organs that make plant sex possible. Sex has also played an arm’s-length role in delivering plant food to our stomachs, as human handmade evolution (plant breeding, or artificial selection) has turned wild species into domesticated staples.

In Sex on the Kitchen Table, Norman C. Ellstrand takes us on a vegetable-laced tour of this entire sexual adventure. Starting with the love apple (otherwise known as the tomato) as a platform for understanding the kaleidoscopic ways that plants can engage in sex, successive chapters explore the sex lives of a range of food crops, including bananas, avocados, and beets, finally ending with genetically engineered squash—a controversial, virus-resistant vegetable created by a process that involves the most ancient form of sex. Peppered throughout are original illustrations and delicious recipes, from sweet and savory tomato pudding to banana puffed pancakes, avocado toast (of course), and both transgenic and non-GMO tacos.

An eye-opening medley of serious science, culinary delights, and humor, Sex on the Kitchen Table offers new insight into fornicating flowers, salacious squash, and what we owe to them. So as we sit down to dine and ready for that first bite, let us say a special grace for our vegetal vittles: let’s thank sex for getting them to our kitchen table.

208 pages | 13 line drawings, 6 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2018 

Biological Sciences: Botany, Evolutionary Biology

Food and Gastronomy


"The sex life of an avocado might seem anything but lurid. Geneticist Ellstrand, however, reveals it as a riot of romantic yearning and ‘sex switching.’ In his foray into the nexus of food, science, and plant reproduction, we enter that alternative universe in which olives and quinces are really vehicles for seeds, the tomato (the ‘love apple’ of yore) is self-fertile, and cultivated bananas are female-sterile. You’ll become reacquainted with the pistil, and wonder at the sugar beet’s rise 'from a cascade of geopolitical incidents.' Nutrition might never seem the same again."

Barbara Kiser | Nature

"In this enthusiastic look at botanical reproduction and evolution, a geneticist uses tomatoes, bananas, and more to enlighten readers about the fascinating sex lives of the plants we eat."

Science News

"My favorite science book of 2018 is Sex on the Kitchen Table, by Norman Ellstrand. This book shares the secret sex lives of our favorite fruits and veggies. For example did you know tomato farmers use special vibrators to help their plants reproduce? And bananas have been bred to not have sex at all. You learn that plants reproduce in all kinds of weird and wonderful ways and how important these different kinds of plant sex are to our food supply."

Science Friday, Listeners' Best Books of 2018

"The sex in this self-proclaimed 'foodie sex manual' is all of the plant variety. But what a variety it is! . . . If plants could read, Ellstrand would be the ideal advice columnist—his knowledge of the pleasures and perils of plant sex is prodigious, and his wit sparkles throughout."

Laurence Marschall | Natural History

"Readers of Sex on the Kitchen Table will certainly learn more about tomatoes, bananas, avocados, beets, and squash, including the reproductive techniques of each. The discussion on human intervention and the banana is particularly interesting, blending science, politics, business, and sex. The last recipe in the book—the one that takes on the GMO-free vs. GMO-full challenge—tackles tacos. Feel free to whip up the Transgenic-Enhanced Tacos, the Transgenic-Free Tacos, or both. As you sit down to enjoy your meal, you’ll have a new appreciation for plant reproduction, plants, and their products. Ellstrand reminds us that 'a lasting romance comes from understanding,' and in this book, he welcomes readers to develop a deeper understanding of the romance of plants and, therefore, of the meals we eat."

Jenny Ferguson | Washington Independent Review of Books

“As his own research focus, Ellstrand is deeply familiar with the topic of gene flow in plants. Thus, he is able to extend each of his stories all the way from well-known basics to the latest research—with references to papers from mid-2017—that will bring surprising twists even to readers familiar with crop domestication and plant reproductive biology.”

Susanne S. Renner, University of Munich | Nature Plants

"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."

Khue Tran | Yale Scientific

"A great little book that delivers on its promise of sex, sex and more sex. Although the sex is of the plant kind, that process has been crucial to the civilizing, and is essential for the continued survival, of the human race; plant sex is therefore of relevance and interest to us all."

Nigel Chaffey | Botany One

"With a rare combination of irreverence and erudition, Ellstrand dives gleefully into the racier aspects of botanical reproduction. His focus on common food plants, complete with recipes, makes Sex on the Kitchen Table relatable, intriguing, and downright fun, while his deep knowledge and a lucid chapter on genetic modification give the book heft. A highly readable reminder that our deepest insights into nature often come from what we eat."

Thor Hanson, author of "Buzz" and "The Triumph of Seeds"

“If the title of this book calls to mind the film encounter between Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice, you should know that the scene had many botanical predecessors. Daily you may grace your kitchen table with the products of plant sex: avocados, tomatoes, and squash betray this origin in the seeds they contain, but a cabbage has a sex life too. Ellstrand shines a spotlight on plant sex, revealing how weird it can be, how promiscuous it often is, and just how mobile plant genes are. All our food plants have wild ancestors, and where wild and crop relatives grow near each other, sex happens. It takes engineering to move genes between unrelated species, but, Ellstrand argues, it’s sex all the same. His message is wise-up and enjoy plant sex. I love it!”

Jonathan Silvertown, University of Edinburgh | author of "Dinner with Darwin: Food, Drink, and Evolution"

“Ellstrand has given us a beautiful book, well-crafted, profoundly researched, yet imminently readable. It elucidates both the intimacy of our gastronomic bonds to our common food plants and their saucy and often promiscuous relationships with each other. Understanding plant reproduction has never been so much fun, especially when coupled with classic food recipes that help us digest the information along with the produce. The story telling style is casual and engaging but doesn't cringe on giving us a dose of solid science. I think the book can be summed up perfectly by this one teasing line: ‘Eros and Aphrodite lurk, giggling, behind the bites you take.’”

John A. Long, author of "The Dawn of the Deed: The Prehistoric Origins of Sex"

“In a funny way, Ellstrand’s book could be called the ‘secret sex life of crop plants,’ because relatively few people know the ins and outs of avocadoes, bananas, beets, corn, or squash. Sex on the Kitchen Table will help readers understand how crop plants reproduce and why that is so significant when it comes to solving problems in agriculture. I haven’t read anything quite like this before. Edifying and entertaining.”

Raoul W. Adamchak, Market Gardens/CSA Coordinator, Student Farm, University of California, Davis | coauthor of "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food"

"In this self-described and highly readable 'foodie sex manual', Norman Ellstrand takes his readers on a romp through the surprisingly sensual world of crop plant reproduction... overall, Sex in the Kitchen Table is a well-conceived, affordable, and student-friendly guide to the sex lives of our domesticated edible flora."

Economic Botany

Table of Contents

1          The Garden
Recipe: Garden Soup—aka Gazpacho
2          Tomato: The Plant Sex Manual
Recipe: Sweet and Savory Valentine Pudding
3          Banana: A Life without Sex
Recipe: Yes, We Do Have Bananas! Puffed Pancake
4          Avocado: Timing Is Everything
Recipe: Avocado Toast—It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore
5          Beet: Philander (Female) and Philanderer (Male)
Recipe: A Celebration of Beet Evolution
6          Squash and More: Sex without Reproduction
Recipe: Transgenic—or Not—Tacos
Epilogue: Return to the Garden
Literature Cited

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