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Authors: Liz Primeau

In Pursuit of Garlic

BOOK: In Pursuit of Garlic

Garlic in History, Lore, Medicine, and More

The bulb, an oriental palace
shrouded in gray and lavender paper, splits open into a heap of wedge-shaped packets...

“Chopping Garlic”

My garlic bulb,
freed from the earth by my trusty trowel, is a moon more than a palace, a pearly orb with smears of dirt making a miniature Sea of Tranquility on its newborn skin. It’s not as round as a moon, but it is undulating and sensual, with papery curves that hide Dracula’s-fang cloves, their flavor so pungent that if I bite into one right away, it will sear my tongue and burn all the way down my throat.

But I won’t do that. Garlic needs to mature and ripen to develop its best flavor, unlike carrots or parsnips or potatoes, which are at their crisp and sweetest best soon after they’re pulled from the ground. Garlic is an opposite sort of root vegetable, whose taste improves with some age, becoming deeper and more layered.

I’ve cooked and savored this divinely odorous bulb, botani-cally known as
Allium sativum,
for many more years than I’ve grown it, but growing it has made me respect it. It’s one tough little dude, a survivor with a history as long as the potato, and like the potato it’s generally taken for granted. It’s seen the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures and has made an appearance in the life of almost everyone who’s ever lived. For about ten thousand years garlic has been many things: in Neolithic times it was a dependable food that could be kept fresh and edible in a cool cave for months. It’s been a flavoring, a giver of strength, a healer, and a preventer of disease, and today it’s being seriously studied for its medicinal value.

It shows up in literature, poetry, art, and architecture—early in the twentieth century Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí built a stylized garlic dome over an air vent on Barcelona’s Casa Batlló, perhaps his take on the more familiar onion dome of Spain’s Moorish history. Clay replicas of garlic or the real thing were buried with pharaohs and ancient kings to nourish and keep them safe from evil spirits as they passed into the great beyond. Images of garlic sometimes show up on hamsas, the hand-shaped amulets that protect against evil in the Middle East and North Africa. Garlic has appeared in paintings—two examples are Diego Velásquez’s
A Young Woman Crushing Garlic
and Vincent Van Gogh’s
Still Life with Bloaters and Garlic
—and references to garlic abound in literature. Shakespeare often alluded to it, usually disparagingly, in his plays; Cervantes, in
Don Quixote de la Mancha,
was critical of the smell of garlic on Dulcinea’s breath; and one of Guy de Maupassant’s characters in “The Rondoli Sisters” is downright disgusted by people who “carry about them the sickening smell of garlic.” But in “Mandalay,” Rudyard Kipling speaks lyrically of garlic: “You won’t ’eed nothin’ else / But them spicy garlic smells, / An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees and the tinkly temple-bells; / on the road to Mandalay...”

Garlic has also been used as currency. If I’d been an Egyptian four thousand years ago with a sackful of garlic bulbs to barter, I could have bought a healthy slave to help me with my garden. That sounds like a better deal than paying the neighborhood teenagers twelve bucks an hour to pull weeds and prune the hedge. Garlic had intrinsic value, too: if I’d been a stonemason working on a pyramid a millennium before that, I’d have been issued garlic every day to keep me strong and disease free. A record of labor costs inscribed on the Great Pyramid of Cheops showed that sixteen thousand talents of silver was spent during one bookkeeping period to feed garlic, onions, and radishes to the thousands of pyramid builders. A talent was an ancient unit of mass, the amount of water that would fill an amphora, and it was also used to measure precious metals. It’s impossible to compare ancient and modern measurements or monetary values, but if one Egyptian talent was equivalent to 80 Roman libra, or about 57 pounds (26 kilograms), as Pliny said a couple of millennia later, these three humble vegetables were worth a lot indeed.

But more than painting or writing about garlic, or buying slaves with it, humans have always liked to eat garlic, whether it was considered good for your health or not. The Mesopotamians, a civilized people who lived in what is now mainly Iraq four thousand years ago, enjoyed garlic with abandon. Forty recipes inscribed on three clay tablets from about 1900 BC (translated from the cuneiform in the 1980s by French scholar Jean Bottéro and now part of Yale University’s Babylonian Collection) use garlic and leeks liberally. The favorite technique was to mash and squeeze them through a cloth so that the juices were released into a pot of, say, mutton stew with beets and cumin. Garlic’s green tops didn’t go to waste either—they were marinated in vinegar and used to garnish the bowl.

Dear actors, eat no onions or garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

AS THE centuries rolled by, garlic’s reputation as a health benefit didn’t waver. Roman soldiers of the first centuries AD exuded clouds of garlic as they marched through Britannia and all the other countries they conquered, for they were issued several cloves of garlic a day to keep them strong and resistant to disease. Sailors plying the oceans reeked of garlic for the same reason. This belief in garlic’s value as preventive medicine lives on, possibly for good reason. At the first sign of a cold or a touch of grippe my eighty-something father-in-law chows down on a clove of garlic to keep the germs at bay. He swears it works, and he’s not the only person in the world who believes that a fresh clove, a few drops of garlic oil, or a homeopathic capsule will fend off disease, cure a touch of catarrh or treat a toothache.

And we all know that garlic keeps us safe from vampires, those blood-sucking beings who terrorized the Balkans and other parts of the world for centuries before becoming a household word with the publication of Bram Stoker’s
in 1897. Professor Van Helsing crushed garlic flowers on the windowsills and doors of Lucy’s room to keep the beast away, although judging by Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 movie version Lucy rather liked having him drop by at night.

Garlic has also come highly recommended as an aphrodisiac. In the first century AD Pliny the Elder wrote that to increase desire, garlic should be “pounded with coriander and taken with neat wine.” In the Talmud, Ezra, a priest-scribe in about 450 BC, decreed that Hebrew husbands just returned to Israel from exile in Babylon should eat garlic on Shabbat to help them fulfill their marital duties and repopulate their homeland.

BUT DESIRE isn’t always desirable. Pliny also advised that garlic should be eaten during festivals of abstinence because its powerful aroma discouraged sexual activity. Celibates of every belief generally abstain from garlic for fear it will stimulate prohibited passions. In India, visitors with garlic breath are unwelcome in many places of pilgrimage and in some mosques and temples; yet garlic is an important ingredient in Indian cooking and has always been integral to Ayurvedic medicine.

Ah yes, there’s always been a hint of ambivalence when it comes to garlic. A fourth-century Buddhist medical treatise written in Sanskrit on birch bark (the Bower Manuscript, so named for the Indian army lieutenant who found it in the nineteenth century) waxed poetic about the garlic plant “with leaves dark blue like sapphires and bulbs white like jasmine, crystal, the white lotus, moonrays, or the conch shell,” but the same manuscript also says that garlic sprang from the blood of a beheaded asura, a powerful being who was caught in the act of making off with the elixir of immortality. (A similar story with a Christian basis says garlic sprang from the footprint of Satan as he fled the Garden of Eden.) Even those garlic-loving Mesopotamians weren’t allowed to eat it on the first three days of the year, when favors were being asked of the gods. You never know when a bad smell is going to make a god mad.

Garlic should be eaten in moderation lest the blood of a man overheats.

HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, twelfth-century abbess and physician

MODERN GARLIC grows in two main types: hardneck (
Allium sativum
), which grows a scape, or flower stalk, and softneck (
A. sativum
), which doesn’t. Under the two main groups, ten subgroups have been identified (they’re listed in “A Garlic Primer,” at the end of this book), though these subgroups keep changing as scientists conduct more research into garlic’s genetics.

Hardneck garlic doesn’t produce much in the way of flowers anymore, because procreation in this way has been bred out. It thrives in northerly climates with cold winters and is seldom, if ever, grown for large commercial purposes. Softneck garlic, which basks in milder climates, evolved from the original hardneck variety in the Mediterranean, where it was taken by adventurers and explorers in ancient times.

Garlic’s lineage has been notoriously difficult to pin down, however. Even someone as acclaimed as Carolus Linnaeus—the mid-eighteenth-century Swedish botanist who studied and classified thousands of plants, listing their places of origin and giving them botanical names—said Sicily was its home. A century later another botanist, the Scotsman George Don, said Linnaeus might be right about the birthplace of softneck garlic but that hardneck garlic came from Greece or Crete. Softneck garlic had simply done what plants often do when they migrate to another country—it had adapted to a warmer climate and, as we shall see, began to reproduce essentially through its underground cloves, not via seeds. Did that make it a different species?

In 1875 Eduard Regel, a German botanist who was director of the Imperial Botanical Garden in St. Petersburg, Russia, said that the whole
genus—softneck and hardneck garlic, onions, leeks, shallots, and the ornamental alliums we grow in perennial borders—originated in Central Asia with the wild
Allium longicuspis.
His findings were accepted as the real thing for about a hundred years, partly because research into the family origins of garlic wasn’t big on everybody’s list but also because the wild
A. longicuspis
was found to be genetically identical to
A. sativum,
our cultivated garlic (of both types).

Then, in 2008, a group of researchers led by Philipp Simon in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin released DNA studies that suggest neither
A. longicuspis
A. tuncelianum
—another parental suspect—could be the ancestor. Even today’s botanists and scientists, who have studied garlic with more advanced techniques than Regel’s contemporaries could have called upon, can’t precisely date garlic’s age or its exact origins. They do agree, however, that hardneck garlic is one ancient plant; it goes back at least ten thousand years to a giant crescent of wild plants that grew through the mountainous regions of Central Asia from Turkistan and the Celestial Mountains into northern Iran.

For a common vegetable, garlic has a very mysterious ancestry. But then how much do we know about the lineage of carrots or any of the other vegetables we eat every day?

I must tell thee, Sancho, that when I approached Dulcinea she gave me a whiff of raw garlic that made my head reel and poisoned my very heart.


Allium sativum’
s parents were, they had strong survival instincts. The plants used their strong, stinging sulfur compounds, which are released and combined when garlic is crushed or bitten (and which make it taste so good and are credited with its medicinal qualities), to protect themselves from predators, parasites, and diseases. Yet the faintly pleasant aroma of the flowers attracted pollinators. Ancient garlic plants grew easily where many other plants couldn’t survive—in rocky valleys, riverbeds, and gullies—and had strong roots that searched deeply for moisture and nutrients. The leaves were narrow and flat so the plants could withstand the heavy, quick frosts of Central Asia, and the plants learned to go dormant and live underground during the extreme heat and dryness of summer. They resumed growth quickly after a period of cold (called vernalization). When conditions above ground were inhospitable, the bulb established a root system that pulled the plant deeper into the ground with each passing season and thus ensured that it stayed anchored in the soil. Today’s garlic has shallower roots, because the bulbs are harvested each year for human consumption and don’t have an opportunity to dig deeper.

As insurance, ancient hardneck garlic had two means of procreation: the underground bulb, which had many cloves that produced new plants the next season, and the flowering stalk, or scape, which had an umbel at the end. Inside the umbel grew an intricate arrangement of tiny flowers and bulbils, which looked like miniature garlic cloves. When the umbels opened and the bulbils ripened, they dropped off and were carried by wind or water to a new place, where they’d take root and after several years develop into large, multicloved bulbs. The flowers in the umbel were fertilized in nature’s tried-and-true method, by the birds and the bees, and after a few years’ growth they too produced plants with strong, large bulbs.

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