The Magic Bulb: Garlic Then and Now


See Installment One: Onions, Garlic and Shallots
Installment Three: Shallots - Coming Soon


Were one to write the authoritative history of garlic, it would greatly parallel such a history of mankind itself, as numerous artifacts of recorded history refer at least on occasion to garlic. In fact, it is strongly believed that garlic was there to engage man's senses and comfort his physical needs long before recorded history, as strong evidence predating the invention of writing during the fourth millennium B.C.E. has been found, demonstrating that garlic was grown in ancient India, China and Egypt. Further proof exists that garlic was one of the earliest known plants to be cultivated. Historical
records reveal garlic bulbs in the tomb of Egyptian Pharoah Tutankhamun, that among the food provided to the slave laborers who constructed the Egyptian Pyramids was garlic as a regular part of their diets, that garlic is mentioned in Islamic, Roman and Greek literature, that references to garlic are found in both the old testament and in the Talmud, and references to the medicinal value of garlic have been found in the 400 B.C.E. teachings of the father of western medicine, Hippocrates.

Hippocrates saw garlic as part of the cure for ailments such as lung problems, which was one of various maladies for which he prescribed the eating of large quantities of raw garlic, to be washed down with wine.

Garlic

While Tutankhamun most likely never got to enjoy the flavoring of garlic in the afterlife, living people over many centuries have done so, using the "stinking rose" to add to the delight of existing dishes, in the creation of new recipes crafted in part specifically to highlight garlic's unique taste, and as a centuries-old parallel, in the world of medicine as a healing force and preventative for a wide array of disorders. In ancient times, it was not just Hippocrates who saw the medicinal powers of garlic. The Ebers Papyrus, a 3,500 year old medical text from Egypt featured almost two dozen garlic-based cures for
ailments as widely diverse as stomach pain, infections and bodily weakness.

The Roman physician Dioscorides thought the benefits of garlic were substantial when consumed either raw or boiled, that it made the human voice strong and clear, that it was a cure for a cough, and that when prepared with oregano, it was a fine insecticide for ridding the hair of lice and the bed of bed bugs. His long list of problems easily cured with garlic also included baldness, clogged arteries, and bloodshot eyes, as well as scurvy and leprosy.

Many non-medical myths also grew up around the use of garlic, such as the belief in those
same Roman times that garlic increased courage, making soldiers more fit for battle. This was so widely accepted that Roman soldiers preparing for battle would routinely be provided garlic, and the ancient Roman saying loosely translated to "May you NOT eat garlic" actually meant "May you NOT be drafted". When those soldiers with garlic-enhanced courage vanquished their enemies and then occupied new lands, one of the first orders of business was to start vegetable gardens featuring garlic plants.

While garlic historians think that the plant originated in southeastern Siberia and then spread to the Mediterranean region, most precise details are obscure and unverifiable. What is more certain, however, is the fact the it was the Romans who introduced garlic to England, where its use is documented to as far back as the tenth century. Often mentioned in the writing of the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare, as its use spread through much of Europe, the taste of garlic was much liked and appreciated, but its aroma not so much. It was said of Henry IV of France that, known to be a chewer or raw garlic, that his breadth could "fell an ox at 20 paces".
As centuries passed, the use of garlic for medicinal purposes has never waned. In the 19th century, Louis Pasteur wrote about the benefits of garlic, and raw garlic juice was said to have been used as a dressing in the trenches of World War I. Yet today, many practitioners of natural and holistic remedies still swear by the benefits of garlic for a wide variety of ailments, and various forms of garlic are sold and consumed in such forms as capsules and tablets. Currently, the food industry also uses garlic as a preservation aid in the manufacturing and packaging of a wide variety of products.

But, do not assume that garlic has had a clear path to popularity across a broad spectrum of society.In the 1600s, in fact, much of Europe viewed the use and consumption of garlic a strictly lower-class activity, not worthy of the aristocracy. Considered a food for "peasants and rustics", many considered it inappropriate for the "refined palates" of the upper class. Popular playwrights of the day, such as Shakespeare, actually ridiculed the tell-tale signs of the garlic in society. In "Measure for Measure", for example, Lucio says of the Duke, that he would "mouth with a beggar though she smell brown bread and garlic". Other writers and commentators, especially among those in the United Kingdom, were of a like mind,
denigrating garlic's wide popularity among the likes of "Italians, Spaniards, the French' and of course, the British "Countrymen" - especially those residing in "damp places".

Besides the aroma thought offensive by so many, another blight of the delicious garlic was the connection felt by so many to closely exist between the consumption of garlic on one hand, and flatulence on the other. This was a problem of historic proportions, documented throughout centuries. Banquets in medieval Europe consisted primarily of foods featuring bountiful amounts of not just flavorful but also aromatic spices, and the food was devoured by closely-seated groups of the great unwashed. Thus, the banquet room was resplendent with generally overpowering odors before a morsel had been eaten. Yet, certainly in high society, and to an extent even in society not quite so high, while the burp was expected and more
than accepted, the letting loose of the "ill wind [from] behind" was not just disfavored, but downright despised, and in some societies, actually outlawed.

In tenth century India, those in the service of the King were given broad rules of personal conduct, including the warning not to "break wind", and in fact India's princely brahmins were forbidden to consume garlic for that reason. In sixth century B.C..E. China, farting in public by anyone was forbidden, as it also came to become in the Roman Empire. During his tenure as Emperor, Claudius sought to legalize it after learning of cases of individuals apparently suffering physical harm through their efforts to stifle the natural expulsion of gas.

In the new world and modern America, while the taste of garlic has never been more popular, and while among some groups the medicinal benefits of garlic have never been more widely accepted, disdain for the aroma of garlic has remained a significant detriment. For health purposes, in fact, many garlic-based products are now produced as and strongly marketed as, "deodorized" or "odor free".

But, what about the current popularity of garlic in modern America? As recently as the 1940s, the use of garlic was thought by some to be “subversive” to the American way of life, and any more than a slight garlic taste - or fragrance - as an element of any
dish was still a dangerous and unpopular addition. In the 1950s and 60s, the beginnings of what has been called the “Garlic Revolution” were seen in England. An early leader of the revolution was Elizabeth David, who brought a long and storied past to the world of food writing. An heiress to British aristocracy, the former actress, world traveler and government employee began writing about and enticing English palates with references to Mediterranean cooking, and her immensely popular book “Mediterranean Cooking”, often referred to as her “Garlic Manifesto”, focused on food preparation utilizing a myriad of spices generally unfamiliar and seldom seen in the British diet. She wrote many additional best selling cookbooks and books on cooking, each featuring the use of such ingredients as aubergines, basil, figs, olive oil, saffron, and perhaps above all, garlic. Such items were hard to find in England back then, but in great part due to David, they became more and more readily available, and popular in the new and exciting, and tasty, expansion of British cooking.

The British really appreciated the new era of cooking to which her writings contributed so substantially, and in 2012 David was chosen as one of the 60 most influential Brits during the 60 year reign of Queen Elizabeth.

The Garlic Revolution also began a massive expansion in the US in the 1960s, led in great part by such icons of cooking as James Beard and Julia Child. But, the great center of the revolution was Northern California, led by chef Alice Waters, who at her one-of-a-kind Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, CA, would serve all-garlic dinners featuring garlic soup to start and garlic sorbet to end, with such inclusions as roasted whole heads of garlic. A particular festive
celebration of garlic is regularly held at Chez Panisse on Bastille Day, billed as “A celebration of the garlic harvest, liberty, equality, fraternity, and sorority,” and generally featuring dishes such as Le pigeon aux 40 gousses d'ail, “Pigeon with 40 cloves of garlic”. and of course the famous Garlic Souffle.

Bay Area garlic chic spread fast and furious, never really looking back. Today, the lavish use of garlic is as popular in the USA as its traditional presence in Italy, Greece, Egypt, and across the Mediterranean. Its taste and the zing it gives to so many otherwise average foods combined with it traditional and expanding position as not just a healthy thing in and of itself, but as a cure-all and a preventative for a variety of disorders, continues to solidify and expand its position in today’s cooking.

See Installment One: Onions, Garlic and Shallots
Installment Three: Shallots - Coming Soon



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