Unearthing the Soiled Story of the Pungent Plant America Loved to Hate
I was thirty-eight years old before I knew what garlic was. This was a great disappointment to me because I don’t think of myself as some gastronomic naïf. (If you don’t believe me, note how I just used the words, “gastronomic” and “naïf.”) Baffled by my benighted state with respect to the Belle Bulb, I undertook some serious research — involving not just Google and Wikipedia, but also out-of-print books and a Carter-administration-era documentary — all in an effort to find someone or something else to blame for my ignorance, as is the American pastime. And not for naught were my efforts for I discovered there were, in fact, several reasons of social and historical import that it had taken me ninety percent of my life-to-date to discover garlic. Thus inspired, I wrote this piece to explain, to anyone who wants to know, just what those reasons are.
I was thirty-eight years old before I knew what garlic was.
Verily, I had voted in five presidential elections before I first unearthed the essence of garlic. Now, to be sure, I knew of garlic — I knew the word (though I didn’t know garlic is called allium sativum in Linnaean taxonomy). I knew it went in food. I knew it could give you bad breath. I’d had garlic bread and that garlic butter sauce that comes with Papa John’s pizza. But, to borrow from Dave Chappelle’s description of his lack of understanding of coal in his latest Netflix special, I didn’t know what garlic was for.
To be more particular, until I was nearly forty I couldn’t taste something and know whether it had garlic in it. I couldn’t cook something and say, “This could use some garlic.” Though in retrospect I had seen it in its natural state, I didn’t then know what it looked like in its raw, non-salt form. (That stuff in the little string sack above the decorative pottery in the kitchen? I thought it was potpourri, I suppose.) In sum, I knew the name, “garlic,” but I didn’t know its Platonic ideal.
Once I realized that I had not truly appreciated garlic until early middle-age I was somewhat confounded — not to mention embarrassed — because I only then came to see how truly pervasive garlic was. My garlic coming-of-age triggered a gastronomic Baader-Meinhof Effect: I suddenly saw garlic everywhere and tasted it in everything. I learned that my then-fiancée-now-wife had been using a garlic press at age six while I had only dispensed it from a can of McCormick’s “Garlic Toast Powder” pulled from next to the cloves in the cabinet by the stove meant to be put on toasted loaves alone. This only made it all the harder for me to come to grips with just how I could have gone nearly four decades in the dark about the Stinking Rose of Mirth.
Just how was that possible?
I certainly was no cook, but by that point in my life, I had dined in all manner of nice restaurants in most of America’s major cities, even the really good ones that weren’t in every major city. I had developed what I thought was a broad palate — I’d eat anything and I really thought I appreciated it all. Yet I somehow found myself an utter philistine when it came to, quite literally, one of the most ubiquitary bits of verdure on the planet Earth.
So I set out to find out why and how I had so long remained such an allic amateur, if only to prove that although I’d hailed from the rural Midwest, my ignorance of garlic did not mean that I or my family were some bunch of callow troglodytes subsisting on TV dinners and McDonald’s because we thought “taco sauce” was too spicy. (Though on that point I must admit that we did come from a place near where TV dinners were invented and where in my youth there were two “Mexican”-style restaurant chains: One served its nachos on tater tots instead of tortilla chips, while the other featured a burrito with a hot dog and Velveeta in the middle.)
[I]n my youth there were two “Mexican”-style restaurant chains: One served its nachos on tater tots instead of tortilla chips, while the other featured a burrito with a hot dog and Velveeta in the middle.
Alright, so maybe I had hailed from a culinary backwater, even by American standards, where the mountains of meat and potatoes were high and the spice rack was far away. But still, surely I was not solely to blame. Surely there were other forces at work in keeping me oblivious to garlic for such eons. Lo, would I find out that there were such reasons! Many important ones, in fact. And if you are patient, dear reader, you will herein learn them — among the annals of garlic’s history as the forbidden fruit in America’s Garden of Eatin’.
In Praise of Garlic
Garlic is, without a doubt, the most versatile, and best-tasting herb, spice, or plant that has ever been consumed by human kind. Yet it is also a humble herb — if it is one — lacking the myriad varietals of — and media attention, money, and snobbery lavished on — wine, truffles, cheese, caviar, marijuana, internet pornography and the like. Yet despite its humility, garlic — which originated from a wild plant found in a range from southern Siberia, south and across northern Afghanistan— has since most ancient prehistory been a global food phenomenon. Even today, garlic makes peoples and cultures everywhere — and especially me as the author of this essay — wish they knew more synonyms for “culinary.” Garlic is joyfully consumed by Pakistanis and Indians, Israelites and Arabs, French, Turks, Greeks, Spaniards, Italians, Russians, Latin Americans, Levantines, North Africans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonese, and other ‘eses from all corners of the globe (though, perhaps expectedly, not so much by the Japanese). As such, even more than its close relatives, onions, shallots, leeks, chives, and rakkyo, garlic is an unimaginably universal, umami, über-uniter.
Indeed, if an alien species were to arrive on Earth and ask us if there was even one thing we could agree on, we might shout out, in unison, as a global family at last, “Garlic!” And then maybe, “Can you help us stop destroying our planet?!” Or, more likely, “Die, prawns! You’re going to taste great with some… garlic!” as we nuke their weird, alieny cloacas.
Garlic also unites our tastes throughout time. The Luscious Lily (garlic is, in fact, part of the lily family) was gleefully glopped up by the ancient Chinese, Romans, Greeks, and Africans, including the builders of the pyramids, who, apocryphally, are claimed to have instituted humanity’s first strike when their garlic rations were cut. Unions, amirite?
It is well that garlic was fed to the pyramid builders because it has throughout its history been known as an aid to hard work. Since the earliest times, garlic has provided a spring in the step of laborers and hands the world over, surpassed only recently by Rockstar Energy Drink and their kids’ Adderall.
Garlic (the name of which is derived from a portmanteau of the Old English words, “gar,” and, “leac,” meaning together “spearleek,” referring, in turn, to the plant’s spear-like leaves) has also long been a cure-all in folk medicine all around the world. Indeed the ancient Greek ur-doctor, Galen of Pergamon, proclaimed garlic the “rustic’s theriac.” It has been historically called the “poor-man’s palliative,” or, more colloquially, the “country cure-all” — or as we might put it today, Percocet.
Indeed, garlic’s widely accepted reputation as a panacea and catholicon persists to the present. This can be easily seen in ads on the bottom of CNN articles, which bombard us hourly with news about the positive effects of garlic on blood pressure, heart disease, stomach and colorectal cancers, prostate cancer, the common cold, and antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea (probably).
As with coffee though, the studies showing garlic’s positive health effects — loudly touted by garlic aficionados — are difficult to unconditionally accept, plagued as they are by the pervasive publication bias, reporting bias, media flip-flopping, and confounding variables so common in nutrition-science reporting and literature today. Nonetheless, one would be very hard-pressed indeed to say that garlic is in any way bad for you. (Unless you are on anticoagulants; then do not eat garlic as it does adversely impact blood coagulation — seriously.) And garlic does have some demonstrable preservative and antimicrobial properties. For example, it was used as an antiseptic during World War I, alongside commandeered hundred-proof Armagnac… and maggots.
The universal enjoyment and appreciation that garlic enjoys today, was not, however, always and everywhere the case. In fact, there was one glaring exception to garlic’s universal affection and acclaim. Unfortunately for garlic, that exception just happened to be a real… stinker…
Contra Garlic: Halitosis, Haters, and the Hoi Polloi
Throughout most of human history, garlic has been widely enjoyed as a folk medicine and quintessential cookery companion. However, there have been some isolated exceptions to this rule, largely among the upper classes, intellectuals, and generalized snobs, prudes, and pricks of history. Past anti-allic groups included certain effete Greek philosophers, selected Sanhedrin and early Talmudic scholar-types, haughty Roman patricians, zenned-out Buddhists, and class-ridden Indian-Hindu/Jain gurus, monks, and maharishis.
Yet even those who damned and banned garlic from their temples, chalices, and hash pipes largely recognized its value as a medicine; the aversion of the ancient brahmins, clerics, and blanched beau monde to garlic stemmed mostly from its pungent aroma and resulting halitosis, which was thought to offend the gods or the opposite sex (those who had eaten garlic were often merely banned from entering religious temples or high falutin’ houses for a certain period of time, for example).
Even so, there is also an undeniable element of class-snobbery to the longtime aversion of some among the avec coulottes to garlic — enough to make bits of the bulb flock the very beards of Marx and Engels. To wit, garlic was easy to cultivate and a little bit goes a long way, so it was necessarily cheap. As a result it was widely consumed by the poor. Because it was also thought to fuel hard work, the leisured class had yet another reason to look down their noses at the beckoning bulb: Were one among them to have openly or notoriously consumed it, someone who mattered might have assumed such a grandee was preparing to get his or her hands dirty. And we can’t have that, can we? Thus, it is reasonable to wonder whether some elites scorned garlic precisely because the poor ate it, using the bad breath only as a petty pretext, like claiming to not eat at McDonald’s because of the onerous terms of its franchise agreements.
It must be added as well that garlic was often popular in Jewish cuisine, depending to a large degree on geography. (Jewish communities in Italy or the Levant would have used more garlic than those in northern France or Germany, for example.) Nonetheless, garlic has always been prominent in the Jewish diet despite some proscriptions on its consumption and use in certain traditions and teachings. It can be presumed that garlic’s popularity among Jews may have contributed to the aversion to garlic in some quarters of a European high society that was often openly anti-Semitic and prone to the type of group-think that led to the Thirty Years’ War and the Eurovision Song Contest.
Some of this elitist garlicism persisted into the Renaissance, but after that period most of continental Europe had thoroughly embraced the Most Flavorful Flower, save for a handful of inbred, tasteless, germophobic, halitosis-horrified, high-class haters (e.g., King Alfonso of Castile). Garlic’s eventual acceptance into haute cuisine on the Continent may largely be due to the influence of the Father of Europe, Charlemagne, who had garlic planted in his royal gardens despite its then diced and dicey reputation among the early Holy Roman One Percent. Holy Roman Empress Marie Theresa was also a garlic proponent, as were Catherine and Marie de Medici, Duchess Beatrice d’Este (famous Shakespeare crush) and her husband, Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Whatever the confluence of reasons, by the Enlightenment garlic was a mainstay on Europe’s platters, whether made of porcelain or wood.
Garlic Non Grata: Garlic in Great Britain & Ireland
There was one European holdout from this great garlic lovefest, however. And much to the lament of lovers of flavor the world over, that holdout was influential enough to impart a disdain for garlic among cultures across the globe, especially in the United States: The nobility of Great Britain and Ireland. There, conditions were perfect for the Albion aristocracy and their Anglo-Hibernian and Great-British bourgeoisie imitators to despise garlic, consigning it to poorhouses, country apothecaries, and pig slops wherever the Union Jack flew. (The same was true among many proto-English Saxons and prissy Prussian Junkers in northern Germany.)
The reasons for the Anglo-Celtic disapproval of garlic were many. Most obviously, though perhaps not most importantly, was the “garlic breath” excuse. This had a greater impact in Britannia given the obsession of the elite there with cleanliness, manners, politeness, protocol, and propriety, especially as the Victorian era reached its apex. (This may explain the historical disdain for garlic among the Japanese as well, prim and formal as is their cultural motif.) Whether you believe this characteristic of British society represented (and perhaps still represents) the hallmark of civilization or the triumph of unctuous, punctilious, prudery over carefree joie de vivre is a matter of perspective, but in any case Victorian manners dictated that no lady or gentleman was ever to be caught in polite company with garlic on the tongue, lest offense be given and a fainting couch have to be summoned.
We absolutely forbid [garlic] entrance into our [salads], by reason of its Intolerable Rankness, and which made it so detested of old; that the eating of it was part of the Punishment for such as had committed the horrid’st Crimes. To be sure. — John Evelyn, aristocratic English diarist, b. 1620 — d. 1706.
Second, the class system in Great Britain and Ireland at the time was all- encompassing. The aristocracy believed they were God’s chosen people and the poor deserved their fate, or, at best, were there to be paternally cared for by their noble masters. The middle-classes and petty bourgeoisie, of course, sought in all things to imitate the squires and various viscounts lest they themselves be confused with the Great Unwashed. This system of belief and practice permeated all areas of culture, including cooking and cuisine. The effect of this was that garlic was effectively banished from British cooking except among the self-aware lower classes and the odd well-traveled, dissipated, eccentric among the nobility or minor gentry. The most famous of these produce prodigals was the archetypal foppish dandy, party boy, and sexually-fluid half-nobleman, Lord Byron, who, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley lamented, had in Italy taken up with “young women of rank” who actually ate “garlick!” (Whether Shelley intended the winking double-meaning of ‘rank’ in this context is uncertain.)
Moreover, beginning flirtatiously before the Reformation and fully consummated by the Enlightenment, garlic and the cuisine of the upper crust in Continental Europe were full-fledged funk buddies, especially in Christendom’s Catholic, Mediterranean realms. This gave the British (who by then had happily invented and embraced both jingoistic, chauvinistic politico-cultural imperialism, and — having also invented their own church — anti-Catholic bigotry) two more reasons to hate garlic: 1) The barbaric, immoral Continentals ate it (especially the French); and (what’s worse) 2) The swarthy Papists really loved the stuff!
So, it can be said that a perfect storm existed in Great Britain and Ireland for the shunning and demonizing of garlic. Even as a medicine, it was regarded as little more than a witches’ brew or snake oil, meant for rubes who couldn’t afford the phrenology, bloodletting, laudanum, and leeches of a proper London doctor.
And given that the English (and their Scottish and Welsh cohorts) conquered a quarter of the globe, and the fecund Irish emigrated and offsprung throughout that empire, the disdain of their elites and social-climbers toward garlic was minced onto much of the rest of the world, at least among the wealthy and/or personally insecure.
England and the English as a rule, they will refuse even to sample a foreign dish, they regard such things as garlic and olive oil with disgust, life is unlivable to them unless they have tea and puddings. — George Orwell, English novelist, essayist, and social critic, b. 1903 — d. 1950.
Bronx Vanilla and Italian Perfume: Garlic in America
Nowhere did British alliphobia find more fertile ground than in what would become the United States (and Anglo-Canada). Not only were negative British attitudes toward the aromatic clove “baked in” to American culture from the beginning thanks to the country’s largely British early-progenitors, but three other factors combined to make Americans’ revulsion toward garlic even more intense than that of their British forebears: Puritanism, Anglophilia, and… you guessed it… racism!
The most important of these factors was the influence of the Puritans. That fun-fearing group’s influence on the culture of the United States strongly persisted until until at least the mid-1900s. It is most often noted in the context of Americans’ “puritanical” attitudes about sex until the 1960s and, some would say, still today. However, puritanism influenced American cooking as well.
The earliest Puritan settlers of America were horrible cooks to begin with — after all, there was only one farmer among them and they were all English. But, more importantly, as the sermons of Jonathan Edwards make clear, the Puritans and their early American descendants, were, quite literally, always terrified of falling victim to the temptation of sin and being burned alive for eternity in the hands of an angry and vengeful God. This terror and self-loathing seeped into their cooking like garlic’s tasty sulfur-compounds seep into a sweetly simmering tomato basil sauce.
While early Americans may not have thought of spicy and otherwise savory foods as quite sinful, tongue-titillating herbs and lip-smacking spices such as garlic were seen as certainly sensuous, likely sensual, probably phallic flowers lining the side of the road to perdition. This view was likely bolstered by the historical belief since ancient times that garlic was not just a medicine and seasoning, but an aphrodisiac as well. In this context, the American suspicion of garlic was not only a matter of taste but of salvation itself.
Another factor was less apparent in early American history, when the country was predominantly and self-consciously British, both in taste and religion. As the twentieth century approached, however, America’s religiosity began to wane in general and was diluted from its plurality-Puritanical base. At the same time, waves of immigration from Germany, Italy, and elsewhere thinned out the Britishness of the American populace and culture. In response to those historical forces, a reactionary effort arose to establish (or re-establish, to some) an amalgamated, unitary, and “proper” American culture in the image of the British nobility and landed gentry. This Anglophilic effort was promoted by the arriviste American plutocrats who yearned to join a global elite that in their eyes was still dominated by the British aristocracy. It was heartily joined in by the country’s expanding provincial bourgeoisie, who were increasingly of non-English extraction but did not wish to be confused with more-recently-arrived southern and eastern European immigrants. America’s Anglicization was even ascribed to (reluctantly or otherwise) by the country’s aspiring polyglot proletariat, many of whom were willing to surrender their central, southern, and eastern European heritage if it could purchase assimilation into the exclusive, prosperous club of America’s British and northwestern European “society.” This Anglophilia of the United States middle class played an increasingly important role in the continued sidelining of garlic from American cooking until late in the twentieth century.
America’s Anglophilia sprang into full being after the Civil War, as the predominantly British heritage of its middle- and upper-classes was eroded by immigration — first German, then Irish, then from all over central, southern, and eastern Europe. It was given a shot in the arm as World War I caused America’s self-assured and culturally distinct German minority to largely abandon their Deutsch-ness and jump headlong into the melting pot lest they be seen as collaborators of the hated Hun. Indeed, our national love and adoption of all things English and hoity-toity persisted well into the twentieth century, beginning to fade away only in the 1960s.
This longstanding cloying imitation of a British culture by the middle class and popular media United States was so forced and so based on a callow caricature of British culture to begin with that it sometimes bordered on a Wodehousian farce. Even so, whether loving and embraced or grudging and imposed, America’s Anglophilia was powerful and manifested itself in many ways. Most well known is the American practice of Anglicizing names that sound too “ethnic,” whether on Ellis Island or Hollywood Boulevard (e.g., Issur Demsky to Kirk Douglas, Natalie Herschlag to Natalie Portman, and Symere Woods to Lil Uzi Vert).
Less obvious but equally widespread was the upwardly-mobile American immigrant’s penchant for converting to Episcopalianism (or whatever Protestant denomination was home to the local “good people”) leaving behind whatever religion and practices that the dominant American WASP culture had deemed a peasant superstition.
Of a piece with such assimilation was the rejection of grandma’s Old Country cookery, including the use of the vampire’s bane — the English aristocracy didn’t eat garlic and looked down upon it as a plowman's lunch, so the great American (white) middle class cast it aside as well. Salisbury steak and boiled goose for all! Thus, middle-class Anglophilia in the United States became a predominant force in the subjugation of garlic and its widespread ostracism from the American dinner table well into the mid-twentieth century, allowing the American aversion to garlic to persist even after those tired, poor, huddled masses of garlic-loving European serfs had arrived on Her shores.
Garlic did retain its beloved popularity in America’s proud and distinct ethnic enclaves on the East Coast and in San Francisco. But often, when a Greek, an Italian, or other newly immigrated garlic connoisseur sought to assimilate “up the ladder” in the United States or tried to fit in after having moved from Manhattan, New York to Manhattan, Kansas, he or she would do three things: 1) Change the last name to something properly English-sounding (by marriage if a woman or court decree if a man), 2) Join the local Episcopal or regionally-predominant Protestant church, and 3) Toss the garlic into the nearest goat enclosure.
Finally, into the tangled vineyard of anti-garlic grapes inherited from England — which included varietals of chauvinistic Chardonnay; snobby Sauvignon; and anti-Catholic Cabernet — Americans grafted their own national cultivar: Racist Rousanne.
Garlic had long been rejected by the British nobles and petite bourgeoisie because of its association with the diet of the working class. That association resulted from the fact that garlic was a cheap, widely available way to deliciously season the otherwise bland foods available to the poor in an era when most other spices and seasonings were far more expensive than they are today. For the same reasons garlic was popular among the British workers and European peasantry, it was widely consumed by slaves in early America. Since the Civil War, garlic has remained a main ingredient in barbecue, soul food and other traditions in African-American culinary culture and folk medicine. Not surprisingly then, garlic’s popularity in African-American cooking contributed strongly to its longtime rejection by America’s dominant, white culture.
Finally, though anti-Semitism may have been less vicious in the United States than in Europe, the prevalence of garlic in Jewish cuisine likely contributed to it being looked down upon by a WASP America that excluded Jews from its country clubs and neighborhoods until the late-twentieth century.
The resulting relegation of garlic in America to ethnic and racial ghettos clearly pales in comparison to so many of America’s other essential characteristics, shortcomings and original sins, even though it was caused by and illuminates them in its own way. Within its own realm, America’s dinner-table discrimination against garlic did lasting damage, serving as a kind of neutron bomb to the quality and all-around tastiness American popular cooking until the past thirty-or-so years — leaving the food in tact, but the flavor destroyed. But the purposeful omission of garlic from American cuisine has import beyond the loss of flavor and narrowed epicurean horizons. For it can safely can be said that the repudiation of garlic by America’s upper- and middle-classes and the resulting large-scale absence of garlic from American dinner tables and tongues was but one manifestation of the widespread erasure of a variety of once-vibrant ethnic cultures in America (even otherwise “white” European ones) as they were subsumed into a bland, milky, WASP-dominated, garlic-free melting pot.
Annals of an American Ancestral Absence of Allium
The exclusion of garlic from polite dining and society in America also sheds much light about how some of us, including myself, who might otherwise consider ourselves to be fairly worldly — or at least not totally naïve — could be susceptible to remaining totally uninformed about garlic until after their first recommended prostate exam (or mammogram, as the case may be).
By the time I was growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, Puritanism, even as a relict cultural force in America, was nigh spent. So I don’t believe it played a huge role in hiding garlic from me for so long, except indirectly, by keeping my great-grandparents and their ancestors from ever trying the stuff. Also, I know racism didn’t play much of a direct role in keeping garlic under wraps because I don’t recall ever experiencing it directly as a kid. (Easy for me to say, as I grew up white in a county that was still 96.6% white in 1990. There was, as far as I know, one black family in my home town when my dad grew up there, and there was a kid from Laos in my third-grade class.) So that leaves Anglophilia as the cultural force that pulled the wool over my eyes garlicwise.
As far as Anglophilia goes, on my mother’s side it was obvious. Generations of English, Scottish, and Anglo-Irish cooks were predisposed by their alliphobic ancestors to spurn the Stinking Rose. Their cooking was further denuded of garlic by a hundred-plus years of degarlifying osmosis in the U.S., where in the country’s early years spice was mortal sin and strong flavor a venial one. As Anglophilia became a rising cultural force, it was natural for many of them to jump on board.
On my father’s side, things were a little more complicated. There, my family was a mix of Czech, German, and Polish intermarriages, with just a small dose of Welsh on one side. Our name was short enough to avoid Anglicization, aided by the fact that my earliest ancestors on that branch immigrated to America in 1871, well before the late-1800s immigrant surge that spawned the Ellis Island-era of ethnic name-changing in the popular imagination. Also, they’d settled — and then abandoned — New York, then Michigan, and finally Illinois before ending up in a fertile but sparsely populated area of the Midwest where neither Bohemian-, Danish-, German-, nor Polish-descended settlers were dominated by their British counterparts, most of whom had stayed farther east. On those wide plains just after the frontier was closed each (European) ethnic group had enough room to keep to themselves, establish their own towns, and prosper, free from the cultural stigma they suffered in the parts of the country whence they’d come, where there was a more populous, culturally-dominant, and preexisting British presence.
Nonetheless, as the 1900s wore on, the hardscrabble polyglot pioneers of the Great American Desert became the stolid, English-speaking, well-to-do farmers, shopkeepers, and businessmen of the Great Plains. As they became self-consciously middle-class they adopted the Anglophilic trappings of America’s cultural and media arbiters on the Eastern Seaboard and in Hollywood. Especially after the advent of World War I led to the gradual erasure of a distinctly German culture and language in the area and World War II finished it off, adoption of Anglo-American customs and cuisine became de rigueur. This, of course, included a near total rejection of garlic in cooking to the extent it may have existed beforehand; the handed-down, garlicky recipes of mutter or matka were replaced by the buttery blandness of the Betty Crocker Cookbook.
And so it was that upon my inquiry, my father said that he never saw a garlic clove growing up, and was unsure if his mother had even so much as used garlic salt. My mother’s experience, on the other hand, was slightly more worldly, as it took place in the course of garlic’s gradual post-war acceptance into American culture and cuisine.
Redemption: Garlic, 1940 — Present
As anyone who has watched Downton Abbey can tell you, the massive social upheavals that brought us the modern world we live in today began in the early 1900s and kicked into high gear after World War I. After having witnessed a scale of death and suffering never seen before the Great War, many of Britain’s old traditions, castes, and provincial prejudices were suddenly seen as quaint, outdated, undemocratic, or, worse, just silly. The still greater cataclysm of World War II would serve to stamp out any surviving vestiges of real power and privilege on the part of the British aristocracy. This included the aristocracy’s defining hold on English mores and tastes, including their disdain for garlic. Moreover, to a degree never seen before British soldiers and sailors would cross borders and seas, tasting things they never had before, including — foodwise — garlic.
The result of all this killing, dying, travelling, and eating was that by the fin de siècle, beginning in the early-1900s and accelerating after World War I, garlic was increasingly accepted in British cuisine. With increasing immigration to Britain from south Asia after Indian independence, the garlic-infused curry replaced fish and chips as the de facto national dish by the 1970s or ’80s. The idea of garlic being beneath a proper English gourmand would have seemed strange by that time, perhaps held by only a few surviving dowagers of the ancien régime. Thereafter, any such notions would have sounded like total snobby horseshit.
The situation was much the same in the United States, although given the country’s geographic vastness compared to Great Britain and its lingering affection for a funhouse-mirror idea of Jolly Olde England that had passed away long before, many Americans’ prejudices toward garlic remained decidedly behind the curve when set against the accepting allic attitudes of their British counterparts, especially in the nation’s vast interior.
America’s embrace of garlic began in the mid-twentieth century in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and a few other larger cities. There, the love of garlicky cuisine originated in the larger, well-established ethnic enclaves in those cities and spread outward, finding fertile ground among a nearby suburban populace that by the 1950s was far more ethnically diverse than in America’s hinterlands. Whether in pizza, pasta, gyros, or America’s version of “Chinese food,” by World War II and its immediate aftermath, the consumption of garlic in America’s coastal, urban outreaches was widespread and openly accepted not only among immigrants, working classes of all ethnicities, and bohemians, but also among sophisticates, Beats, gourmands, Jet Setters, and yuppies (had that term yet been coined.) By the early-1960s, the only holdouts in America’s coastal garlic garrisons were, perhaps, a few aging WASP brahmins and timid, pearl-clutching Anglo-suburbanites.
The situation vis-à-vis garlic in the U.S. at mid-century was neatly summarized by famed American food writer (and quintessential, Tufts-educated, Rhode Island-born, East-Coast elitist), Waverly Root, who wrote in his 1976 book, Eating in America:
Before I left America to live in Europe in 1927, you were looked down upon if you ate garlic, a food fit only for ditch diggers; when I returned in 1940, you were looked down upon if you didn’t eat it. It had become the hallmark of gastronomic sophistication.
Love in the Time of Garlic
Though she was born in America’s most hintery of hinterlands, my maternal grandmother spent her young adulthood living around the country during this early epoch of garlic’s national coming out party. She married local preacher’s son who became an Army Air Corps glider pilot and spent significant time in both North Africa and Italy during World War II, and she became well acquainted with garlic through him once he returned from the war. This exposure to garlic expanded while they were stationed at an airbase near French-derived, garlic-loving Cajun country in Louisiana.
Several years after their divorce and her return to the left ventricle of the U.S. Heartland, she married a prosperous local doctor who took her, my mother, 15, and my uncle on an extended vacation/tour of North Africa and Mediterranean Europe. There, in garlic’s Madrepatria, my mother enjoyed the pungent plant unencumbered by the Anglo-American dining peccadilloes that had limited my grandmother’s childhood. A local in Tunisia also offered to purchase her from her stepfather because of her blonde hair (he was two goats short, my (step) grandfather joked) and an Italian soccer player proposed to her at a restaurant. Hey, it was the ’60s. They also met the United States ambassador to Spain and probably had some garlic at the embassy dinner.
After that youthful run through spearleek pastures with my grandmother, my mother returned to live in the fresh-breathed, garlic-free acres of my hometown, about a hundred and twenty miles from the geographic center of the United States, where she met and married my garlic-blinkered father, and had me (and later my brother).
Our town didn’t seem that remote, as long as you only went east. But if you drove to the northwestern corner of town, parked your car, and kept walking in that direction, you might very well not ever encounter another human habitation before plunging into the Arctic Ocean six months later somewhere between Wainwright and Barrow, Alaska.
That matters because while America’s cosmopolitan quarters were by mid-century imbibing in all manner of new, ethnic, garlic-insfused cuisines, our neck of Eden was prelapsarian when it came to eatin’, subsisting primarily on eggs, cream-of-mushroom casseroles, corn, beef, corned beef, and mayonnaise-based salads from Waldorf to macaroni. That is to say, the town where I spent much of my early childhood was not a hotbed of cutting-edge dining experiences and garlic gastronomy. It was a place that by the mid-1970s had a couple of fancy new “pizza places” but otherwise not any restaurants that dabbled much in the garlic arts. It was the kind of town where, to paraphrase Ray Liotta as Henry Hill at the end of Good Fellas, you might order spaghetti with marinara sauce and get egg noodles and ketchup. Needless to say, there also wasn’t a big “food scene” among the locals on the right side of the tracks, where the nicest restaurant in town specialized in fried chicken and mashed potatoes and Long John Silver’s had a line around the block on Fridays during Lent. This was where garlic in America had hit rock bottom. This was where I grew up.
Despite our location — where the Platte River substituted for the Styx in the garlic netherworld — thanks to my mother’s youthful gallivanting around Spain, Italy, and Morocco, garlic did at least exist in the kitchen of my childhood, albeit mostly in the form of garlic salt and “Garlic Bread Seasoning,” especially early on in my childhood. Nonetheless, likely owing most to my disinterest in cooking, I never inquired about the occasional garlic sighting in our house. So throughout my childhood, eating garlic was sort of like an getting erection in math class— I knew it happened, but I didn’t know where it came from or what it was for, and I sure as hell didn’t talk to my mom about it.
Garlic Comes to the Shires
Garlic had established a bulbous beachhead on America’s coasts by the 1940s and had been largely embraced there by the close of the 1960s. Yet most of America’s interior then remained a bland expanse of digestible but inoffensive, garlic-free, faux-English cuisine made all the more boring by the influence of Atomic Age corporate-industrial food from Stouffer’s, Kraft, General Mills, et al.
It is commonly thought today that America’s 1960s counterculture rapidly spread nationwide by the early 1970s, but that was not the case; for much of the country, while the revolution might have been televised, it did not come to you. For young people in the Midwest, the ’60s was something you had to go to, by leaving your hometown and heading to California or some eastern city with head shops, lax pharmacies, and the promise of sexual anonymity. As I first heard a few years after moving there, ‘There was no ’60s in Dallas.’ It is a phrase just as apt for a lot of towns and states like the one where I grew up. In our proverbial woodneck, it wasn’t until the late-’70s and even the ’80s that the Baby Boomers’ and hippies’ assimilation into and takeover of the mass media and other cultural institutions they had once tried to overthrow finally led to the full disestablishment of provincial America’s previously dominant, Puritanical, Anglophilic culture.
And where sex, drugs, and rock and roll went, garlic followed.
Thus, garlic’s entree into the honey-oaked kitchens of the provincial patricians and parvenus of the American Midwest did not begin in earnest until the late-1970s and wasn’t at full steam until the 1980s or even the early-‘90s. Garlic’s odoriferous onslaught was organic at first. Garlic’s debut on a Midwestern Main Street might have come through someone recently graduated from the local state university where their pot dealing, UC-Berkeley-transfer roommate ate garlic by the bushel. Or a respectable hometown son might have tried this new thing called “gwah-ka-molay” at a “real” Mexican restaurant in Kansas City or Denver and shown it off to his friends by hosting a Corona Light-fueled “taco night” party. Or, perhaps after a visit to her new husband’s cousin’s place in Philadelphia, a local daughter purchased a garlic press at the kitchen supply store in Des Moines. In addition, it must be noted that the Great Plains was beginning to experience an influx of Hispanic immigrants who arrived, with garlic, to work in meatpacking plants that had been moved to extremely rural areas of “right-to-work” states to break the meatpackers’ unions in Chicago, Green Bay, Omaha, and other cities. One way or another, garlic began its creep into America’s doughy midsection.
All the Hip People are Eating It
Perhaps the most important cultural force spurring on garlic’s acceptance by the Heartland smart set was the 1980 documentary Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, by renowned documentarian Les Blank, which was no doubt seen by thousands of small-town Midwestern muckety-mucks as it ran sporadically for years on PBS. (This was more influential than you might now think because, keep in mind, PBS was one for four television stations available to most people at the time, and had a wide following among ‘80s yuppies who were into Monty Python reruns and that show, Mystery!, hosted by Vincent Price with the creepy/funny opening credits illustrated by Edward Gorey).
The title of the film was derived from the Italian proverb, “Garlic is as good as ten mothers for keeping the girls away,” and it is one of 725 films selected so far by the National Film Preservation Board for inclusion in the National Film Registry of culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films. So, it’s basically the Pootie Tang! of garlic documentaries.
Filmed in northern California from 1977 to 1980, Garlic, as the film is popularly referred to, focuses on the annual garlic festivals at the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and the garlic festival in Gilroy, California, the self-proclaimed Garlic Capital of America. Its setting in Berkeley and nearby northern California also neatly demonstrates garlic’s migration from America’s cosmopolitan maritime metropolises into its rural and bucolic backwaters.
[Note — You can tell Garlic is shot in the 1970s because hair conditioner, bras, makeup, good microphones, razors, and evidence of past orthodontia are all in short supply. Also, the subjects are very aware of being “on camera” when they speak, and try to — often awkwardly — present a “proper,” well-enunciated image of themselves. This can be contrasted to the behavior of documentary subjects today who are likely to kick the cameraman in the nuts to become a YouTube star or make duckface, just as would any practiced, personally-branded, Snapchat/Instagram “influencer.” — ed.]
The film opens with a shot of a young California woman. After demonstrating a garlic press to the American audience to whom the device may be unbeknownst, she shyly and purposefully says:
My mom used to hate it. She comes from Columbus, Ohio, and her parents are from Ireland. And they didn’t touch the stuff. I don’t think garlic is a very Irish herb. I couldn’t cook garlic for four days before guests would come over for dinner because she said the smell of garlic would make her guests feel sick. Eating garlic she thought of as being offensive.
And that about sums up the slowly-changing but still prevailing middle American attitude toward garlic at the time of the film’s release.
Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers is a fantastic documentary, not only in terms of its film making and the informative, humane, and joyful way it examines its subject, but also for introducing the viewer to Lloyd J. Harris, a/k/a, this guy:
Mr. Harris is the author of the garlic bible, The Book of Garlic — The Incredible Story of Allium Sativum as Magic Bulb, Potent Medicine, Unrivalled Culinary Herb, and Stinking Rose of Mirth, and later editions thereof. You can pick up a copy online for yourself, though I should warn you, there’s always only “1 left in stock — Order soon!”
In the film, Mr. Harris explains in that quintessential, nostalgic, lyrical, California-accented, burnt-out, over-serious, aged-out hippie voice how garlic was spurned by America’s WASPy, stuffy, religious culture, which is being “overthrown,” “rejected,” and “cast aside” to make way for the ascendancy of the Age of Aquarius or something, but definitely including garlic. His soliloquy, and, I presume, his breath, are glorious to behold.
Garlic contains some other choice lines, including:
Vampires leave vacuums of chill.
I like it if I don’t know its in there.
Garlic provides the bass note.
This is Italian marijuana.
It feels good to peel garlic. That’s the hard part to talk about without sounding like a hippie dipshit.
On top of being an interesting and entertaining look at an obscure subculture full of fascinating characters and recipes, Garlic masterfully transports the viewer to that precise moment in time, from about 1976 to 1984, when American kitchens contained copper pots on hanging racks for days, butcher block and yellow-formica countertops, ferns, phones with twenty-foot cords, oak everything, mudlike ceramic cups, straw chair-backs, huge pepper grinders, plastic coffee mugs full of Taster’s Choice, weird straw dolls, vaguely disturbing crocheted caricatures of naked cartoon-people on the walls… and a burlap pouch of unused garlic hanging by the door. It was a brief era, almost totally forgotten by no later than 1988 or so, but seeing it again was truly uncanny.
In sum, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers did as much as anything in the popular media to proselytize for garlic in the 1980s in parts of the country beyond the bohemian coastal enclaves where it had gained acceptance after World War II, in the Bohemian areas of the middle third of the country.
Though I’m sure there was also a special episode of Diff’rent Strokes where Mr. Drummond catches Arnold and Willis eating garlic and starts scolding them about how doing so would keep them from succeeding in life due to bad breath and people thinking they were black. And you’re like, Whaaat!? Did he just say that? But then he gets interrupted by Mrs. Garrett, who solemnly schools them all about garlic’s great taste and health benefits and its veneration by a variety of ethnic cultures, which should be respected, not looked down upon. Then, she tearfully admits that she’s Italian, that her real last name is Ficarotta, not Garrett, and that her parents died of grief and syphilis on the boat to Ellis Island when she was a little girl, and then everyone hugs. And then! Mr. Drummond admits that his mother was half-Italian and he hasn’t spoken to her since he found out, but now he knows better and he promises to write her back into his will and find her a better place to live than that rent-controlled roach motel on Mulberry Street where she sleeps in a pool of her own tears. Then they all high-five and the episode ends in freeze frame. After a second, you think, “That’s supposed to be a feel-good ending? This rich, racist asshole cut his mother out of his life because she’s Italian and left her to die of scurvy and be eaten by her cat and we’re supposed to just forgive him?! This is bullshit.”
But you move on…
Acceptance and an Allic Awakening
As garlic’s stigma faded around the country and its availability increased, it started appearing more in my mother’s cooking. Guacamole became less exotic. Ragu’s spaghetti sauce had a “Now with Garlic!” splash on it for a while, I think. Still, I only noticed this all in retrospect. Garlic just isn’t that important when you’re ten.
Around 1988 we moved to California, and it started raining garlic. We had guacamole for breakfast out there. We moved to a largely white enclave in the Central Valley, but it was still classical Rome from a diversity perspective compared to where we’d come from. There was garlic everywhere, whole cloves of it were in stuff all of a sudden. It was in the spaghetti sauce at our friends, the Campisis, it was hanging in the air at the house of my brother’s Korean buddy, Kim.
When we moved back to the Midwest four years later, I felt like Waverly Root marveling at garlic’s sudden acceptance in my cradle counties. Papa John’s had garlic butter sauce in their pizza boxes next to the “banana pepper,” and no one batted an eye. In the space of about five years, America had forgotten that most people used to hate garlic for all sorts of chauvinist, classist, racist reasons, taking a page from our new Italian neighbors we all just decided to fuggeddaboutit. Garlic was just part of the air now. It was so ubiquitous, I didn’t even think to ever ask exactly what it was or how it tasted. Not bad for an herb that for most of American history has been viewed as barely a step above eating termites.
Almost twenty-five years after that, I was 38 and dating my now-wife in a sprawling Sunbelt metropolis. We were both working long hours. She liked to cook, and I liked to eat, but we didn’t have time to go to the grocery store and cook and hang out in the evening when we each didn’t get off work until 7 or 7:30.
So, like a lot of people were doing in 2015, we subscribed to one of those ingredients-ready-to-cook “meal kit” delivery services. There were so many:
- Blue Apron
- Hello Fresh
- Ding Dong, Dinner’s Not Ready!
- Here, You Cook This
- Allow You
- Can We Use Your Dishes?
- Nom Noms + Toxic-Garbage Cold Packs
- If Only You Could Eat Lots of Small Plastic Bags
- This Is What the Environmental Apocalypse Looks Like From the Inside…
Whatever they were called, we did them all as long as we kept getting fifty-dollar coupons.
We started cooking. And I liked it. They eye-opening part was that the ingredients were delivered mostly in discrete little Zip-Loc bags (that once upon a time only coke dealers used) so in the course of cooking all these various meals, you got to understand exactly what consistency or flavor each ingredient added to the food (and sadly contemplate your contribution to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). This included the common, quotidian, and literal “garden variety” herbs and spices, such as rosemary, marjoram, thyme, etc., as well as more exotic ingredients like sherry vinegar, fennel, freekeh, medjool dates, and mascarpone cheese. And, most revelatory to me… garlic.
I got to see it, taste it, smell it, cut it, mince it, handle it, and appreciate it. I learned what it added to food, and what food was missing without it. I thought about it. I let it sink in. I learned what it went with (tomatoes) and what it didn’t (toothpaste). It became a part of my life… about thirty-eight years late in my book.
And that, dear reader, is how I remained ignorant of garlic until only a year or so before the first time I visited a urologist. It wasn’t my fault! It wasn’t because I was some rube who cut the crust off of his sandwiches, and only ate white-meat chicken. It was the result of a global, imperial conspiracy headed by none other than the Queen herself! As a middle-class American white guy with a postgraduate degree, I would certainly not count myself among the colonized, subjugated, snubbed, and divided people the world over. But as someone who has had garlic withheld from him for most of his life, I can now join many among them in suffering, however slightly, the lasting effects of Anglo-colonialism, from the Berlin Conference and the Sykes-Picot Agreement to cricket and left-hand traffic, and blame…
You can find more on the foregoing garlicana in Mr. Harris’s book, supra, as well as in For the Love of Garlic! by Victoria Renoux.
Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers can be found in the Criterion Collection boxed set of Les Blank’s documentaries ‘Always for Pleasure,’ Vol. 2, on Blu-Ray or DVD. It’s pricey, but is usually available at your local public library! Check it out! (Get it?)
Also, take a listen to ‘The Garlic Song’ by Ruthie Gorton. Various other versions of this song can be found online. They all play fast and loose with the lyrics and the order of the verses. But if there were ever a song that should be covered by The Decemberists, this is it.