By Bob Schwabach

Originally published in The Chicago Tribune, October 23, 1978.

Let us speak now of garlic. Allium sativum. It is a member of the lily family. It is a cornerstone of the three great cuisines of the world– French, Italian, and Chinese– and permeates, so to speak, our very culture.

To wit:

  • Garlic and war: Roman soldiers ate garlic before going into battle. It was believed to give courage and ferocity. At any rate their enemies were always taken aback. This is, in fact, how the use of garlic spread throughout the western world.
  • Garlic and sport: Aristophanes noted that athletes used to eat garlic before the Olympic games.
  • Garlic and aviation: In 1971, a BOAC DC-10 had to be abandoned at takeoff when two bottles of garlic concentrate broke in a passenger’s suitcase in the luggage compartment. The plane was finally cleared out by a crew wearing gas masks.
  • Garlic and the electric light: Scientists discovered in the 1930s that garlic vapor produced a full spectrum light like sunlight when excited by an electric current. Very little has been done with this.
  • Garlic and education: In 1937 several students at Flossmoor Public School were temporarily suspended when they got into a garlic breath contest in class.
  • Garlic and health: Garlic is reputed to clear cholesterol from the blood, kill germs, promote the healing of wounds, protect against plague, vampires, fleas, ticks, and lower the blood pressure. (A lot more on this shortly.)

AH, THERE’S the rub.

Garlic has been, and to a large extent still is, the flavoring of peasant food. For centuries its characteristic odor on the breath has been associated with laborers and poor farmers. “What do you think,” the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to his friend Leigh Hunt. “Young women of rank actually eat– you will never guess — garlick!” (Roman ladies of rank never ate garlic– that was for the rabble.)

The peasantry used it for the most basic of reasons: It made food smell appetizing and taste great. And it was healthy. It has been believed by many peoples for many centuries to cure a variety of ailments, promote general well-being, and, not the least of its properties, ward off evil spirits.

Joel Tardy, the chef at L’Auberge on North Clark Street, says, “It is like salt and pepper. We use it in almost everything.

“It is not just for the cooking of Provence as some people think– there is no part of France where they do not use a lot of garlic. You could not go into any French home and not see it hanging in the kitchen.”

THE WAY it is used depends on the dish. Tardy says whole cloves are used for roasts, stuffed inside, and removed after cooking. It is chopped for sauteed dishes, and its juice is used for salads and sauces. For a light flavoring touch, a wooden bowl may be rubbed with it or toast rubbed before cutting for croutons.

“It is also good,” Tardy says, “to hang in the window to keep the devil away.”

He is joking, but only partly.

The use of garlic is intimately tied to beliefs about its efficacy in all manner of matters of health and superstition. There is, in fact, clinical evidence that it lowers blood pressure and removes cholesterol from the blood. It fumes alone are sufficient to kill many bacteria.

“I KNOW A man,” says Michael Carioscia, the cook at Mama Sue’s on West Taylor Street, “who has high blood pressure and whenever it shoots up on him he ats some raw garlic and he puts a lot on his food. It seems to help.

“I remember the old people: they used to pin a clove of garlic on the clothes of a newborn baby. They said it kept away evil spirits and would keep the child from getting sick. I don’t know if this is true but people have always said so.”

Carioscia also uses garlic in almost every Italian dish he makes. “I buy it three or four pounds at a time,” he says. “You cannot cook without garlic.”

Chu-Yen Luke, who runs an Oriental grocery store on the North Side and teaches Chinese cooking, agrees. “The Chinese believe that garlic promots good health and cures diseases,” he says. “That is the main reason we use so much of it.

PARTICULARLY WITH  pork. I don’t think you will ever see a pork dish cooked without garlic. This is because pigs are not clean, they run around and eat everything, and they have all sorts of filth around them. The garlic kills the germs. (During World War II the Russians used garlic as an antiseptic for wounds and it proved quite effective. The fumes killed infectious bacteria within three minutes.)

“For this same reason we use garlic whenever there are swamp vegetables in a dish,” Luke adds. “It is used in everything I can think of except beef dishes. I think this is partly because beef was very rare in China and it is only fairly recently that people have used it.”

“It is also good to keep away vampires,” Luke says.

He, too, is joking, but only partly.

In Europe and Asia a garland of garlic flowers around the neck has long been believed to provide protection against vampires; it also wards off insects.

In the Middle Ages, doctors regularly carried cloves of garlic in their pockets when they visited sick patients. During the Black Death the only three men (convicts) to survive the duty of clearing the bodies of plague victims friom the streets of Paris were eaters of raw garlic. In London during the plague, the only house to escape with no illness in a district of the city that experienced at least one death in every home was that of a spice merchant who had several hundred pounds of garlic stored in the cellar.

Such incidents and even lesser tales and rumors have fueled the reverence for garlic and the belief in its powers. Garlic was a god in ancient Egypt and used regularly 6,000 years ago. It was used in Asia before that. In China the oldest known text mentions that garlic must be added to sacrifices to make them pleasing to gods.

VIRGIL SAID that eating garlic maintained strength and vigor.

Pliny said it was effective as a treatment for consumption.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt ate three garlic balls a day (dipped in chocolate) to keep her memory sharp, she said.

Celsius said it cured fevers, and Hippocrates said it made an excellent laxative. Mohammad recommended it as an antidote for viper bites and scorpion stings, but he forbade anyone smelling of garlic to enter a mosque on the sabbath.

GARLIC BREATH has been a long-standing complaint. A contemporary of Henry IV noted that the French monarch, though admirable in other ways, was inordinately fond of garlic, and “had a breath that could fell an ox at 20 paces.” Desirable as garlic may have been thought ofr its health-giving properties, nobody liked to smell it on someone else’s breath.

Tardy says that chewing parsley afterwards seems to help. Luke says that lemon juice is quite effective. Carioscia says he’s never found a cure. A traveler in 17th century France noted that the girls of Provence may be safely kissed after they have drunk some red wine. The common thread seems to be something acidic.

Which brings us to the nature of the beast. The nontechnical minded may skip the following paragraph, though they will miss thereby a nearly priceless bit of dinner conversation.

Garlic while whole has no odor. Cook the whole cloves and the odor is still negligible. But when the clove is broken or cut, the enzyme allinase reacts with the organic sulfur compound allyl crysteine sulfoxide to form dialyl thiosulfinate. This in itself would not be so bad were it not for the fact that the comound is unstable. Diallyl thiosulfinate quickly breaks down to diallyl disulfide and allyl thiosulfinate, the one giving the odor, the other the taste. Both, fortunately or unfortunately, are stable.

It is for this reason that a salad in which a crushed or juiced clove is mixed with the dressing will taste sharply of garlic while another dish, like the Chinese classic 40-clove chicken, that is made with whole cloves, will have only a delicate flavor.

THERE IS,  as for many things, a season for garlic. Gus Battaglia, of August Battaglia Co., who believes he is Chicago’s largest supplier of garlic, says the garlic you buy comes mostly from California, with a little from Mexico. Early garlic is harvested in May and comes from Mexico. The quality, says Battaglia, is not as good as California garlic, but it is fresh and you have been waiting all winter for fresh garlic.

In June and July the California crop starts coming in and this is called “late-keeping” garlic because it stores well. There are two varieties of each, pink shelled and white shelled. They all taste the same.

Battaglia says that if the garlic bulbs have been dried properly they will keep about six months. Because the last harvesting in California is around the end of September through the middle of October, this gives you just barely enough time to hang onto your garlic until the Mexican crop comes in May.

GARLIC SHOULD be bought firm and have an even color, Battaglia says. If the cloves are pucked or have dark spots, don’t buy them. They are too old.

Battaglia says that when he was a boy he remembers that restaurants used to hang strings of garlic as a deodorizer. “It kept smells out of the air,”  he says. “And maybe they used it to keep other things out of the air too.”

He is joking, but only partly.


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