By Daniel Doyle, Yokna(patawpha) Bottoms Farm
Oxford Eagle, March 2011
It seems that every month when we sit down to discuss the next incredible vegetable we want to examine it manages to outdo its predecessor with an exceedingly impressive profile. So, true, is it once again with our friend garlic (though cilantro was quite the competitor). If you haven’t caught a ride on the garlic train yet, you’re missing out on a 4,000 year-old party that has been simmering over ovens since cave-paintings were the newest rage.
With sexy, exotic varieties from Rocambole and Creole to Silverskin and Turban, this bulbous perennial of the Allium family (close cousin to chives, leeks, shallots and onions) gets its name from the old English term garleac, which means “spear leek”. Taking on different titles depending on its turf, you may hear it being hawked as alho, toi, bawang, lasun, sarmisak or one of countless other handles depending on where you wander. During its brief period of impropriety in the US when considered something low class, vulgar and suspiciously foreign, garlic was snubbed as Bronx vanilla, Italian perfume or the ugly head of halitosis itself. Fortunately, political-correctness and American chefs finally caught on to a few millennia of applause and began to place the stinking rose back on the sacred pulpit where it belonged.
Both heralded and reviled for its potency, the former due to its health benefits the latter its unseemly odor – though some enjoy this aroma, described by Alexandre Dumas as “the refined essence of this mystically attractive bulb” – garlic has become more pervasive than potatoes (in fact, tomorrow you may wish to double your luck and marry the two when enjoying your corned beef and cabbage St. Patrick’s day feast).
The incredible benefits of garlic have been recognized by a rich diversity of peoples and cultures since about as long as there has been people and culture. With strong ties to both the east and the west, the wild ancestor is believed to have evolved from a plant native to central Asia. As agriculture spread, so did garlic and its legendary repute. Inscriptions in Egyptian pyramids portray garlic as something of ceremonial significance since around 3200 BC, the herb even finding its way into the tomb of King Tut and onto the ancient Codex Ebers. The Sanskrit medical treatise, Charaka Samhita, praised garlic repeatedly as did the Navanitaka text written in the 4th century AD by Buddhists. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder attributed its properties to over 60 common cures and Hippocrates, regarded by many as the father of modern medicine, used garlic to treat cancerous tumors. Today, over 2000 yrs later, modern science is finding some of these same discoveries in its application to inhibit the growth and spread of cancer as well as countless other common ailments and infirmities.
Ubiquitous throughout antiquity, garlic can be found scenting every page of your history books and religious texts with its pungency. Ancient Romans warned that “one must be suspicious of anyone who does not eat garlic” and gave their soldiers raw cloves before battle for courage (with the dual advantage of nauseating opponents with their stinking legions). Egyptian slaves were fed it to keep up their strength and Greek Olympic athletes consumed it prior to competition. You can almost hear a gladiator below out before delivering the death blow, “Shallots are for babies; onions are for men; garlic is for heroes!” Early Christians couldn’t help themselves but to reject the glorious temptations of garlic, thus professing that after Satan vanished from the Garden of Eden garlic grew from his left footprint and onion grew from his right. In the middle ages, braids of garlic hanging in doorways or bottles of Four Thieves Vinegar (garlic wine) were attributed to warding off both the plague and evil spirits.
And I haven’t even gotten to vampires yet! Popularized in Bram Stoker’s Dracula as vampire-repellant, the origins of this legend actually arise from garlic’s reputation for repelling another disease-carrying bloodsucker: the mosquito (fleas, too). Not only does garlic keep away these immortal creatures of the night and unpleasant pests, but its strong smell may keep your friends and lovers at bay as well. However, if you get them close enough there is a distinct possibility that you may morph into a debonair hound yourself. Garlic has long been linked to the sexual vigor of its consumers. Many Chinese, Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Jewish prophets celebrated its amorous inducing power while some religions condemned it for the same reason. Tibetan monks were forbade to enter their monasteries after a bite of this vegetarian Viagra due to its reputation for inflammation of the passions. Modern science may explain this connection, as garlic has been shown to improve poor blood circulation, which is often a case for impotency in men. Fine, if you can get past the kiss …
Miracle drug, vampire repellent and offering to the gods – garlic has functioned as a curative “super-food” both medicinally and nutritionally, placating problems from the flu to the plague and everything in between. In Ayurveda, the ancient Indian healing system, garlic is described as a medicinal plant which was used to warm the body, improve blood circulation, and cure digestive problems. Taoists believe that garlic enhances the vital life, or chi, energy. Just superstition you say? In 1858, Louis Pasteur proved a diluted garlic solution works as an antiseptic killing bacteria, with just one millimeter of juice as effective as 60 milligrams of penicillin. During WWII when synthetic drugs weren’t readily available, British and Russian military used these solutions to disinfect wounds and prevent gangrene.
This, and many of garlic’s healing powers, stem from hundreds of volatile sulfur compounds found in the vegetable (including allicin, from which that lovely aroma derives) making it not just an antiseptic, but also an antibiotic, antibacterial (lethal to both salmonella and staph), anti-fungal and anti-parasitic herb. High in antioxidants, garlic helps destroy free radicals – particles that damage cell membranes and contribute to the aging process as well as a number of conditions such as heart disease and cancer. Oh yea, you get your daily dose of Vitamins A, B and C from garlic, too. “There are many miracles in the world to be celebrated,” said Felice Leonardo Buscaglia (otherwise known as Dr. Love) when discussing our fear of mortality, “And, for me, garlic is the most deserving”. These miraculous compounds that give garlic its pungent smell and taste are the same ones responsible for its countless health benefits … though only if eaten raw. Once cooked, garlic looses most of its pungency but also much of those benefits.
Not just good for people to consume, garlic’s unique fungicidal and pesticide properties can also help keep neighboring plants healthy while concentrated garlic juice or extracts can be diluted in water and sprayed onto other vegetables to ward off the pests that frequent these areas, all while doing double-duty as a bio-stimulant. But be sure you’re getting the real deal, as much of what you see in grocery stores is the swollen Elephant Garlic, which is more closely related to the leek and therefore doesn’t offer nearly the same health benefits and distinct taste of true garlic bulbs.
There are two general classifications of garlic, hardneck and softneck with the latter better suited to our climate here in Mississippi. Within these two divisions, there are over 300 varieties of garlic grown worldwide and increasingly becoming one of the most popular things to plant in backyard gardens. Onions may have many layers, but garlic has multiple cloves – each one a smaller clone of itself that can be planted to produce another full bulb. Be sure to order seed garlic from a reliable seller like Filaree Farm or Gourmet Garlic Garden in early Spring to ensure you get the varieties you want and then plant them mid-Fall. At Yokna Bottoms, we’ve found it an excellent over-wintering crop and are expecting a big harvest within the next couple of months – perhaps in time for Patawpha Fest, our annual music, food and arts festival held out at the farm this year on Saturday, April 16.
Here in Lafayette County, we are fortunate to have some great garlic growers in our own backyard. Visit the Water Valley Farmer’s Market to sample some of what Harris Family Farms (another local Certified Naturally Grown producer) has been perfecting for almost a decade (and be sure to ask about Gladney’s garlic butter) or come by the Taylor Farmer’s Market to get growing tips and fresh, organic garlic from her sister-in-law, Katherine ‘the garlic lady” Daigle of Broken Magnolia Farm.
Whether smoked, roasted or caramelized, garlic can be enjoyed or applied in countless ways – all equally wonderful. Once again, Danielle Haiden of The Ravine in Oxford provided us with an incredibly simple and delicious recipe she picked up from an adopted Nonna while living in Italy.
Before you run for the kitchen, we’ll leave you with some sage words of wisdom from the immortal William Shatner, “Stop and smell the garlic! That’s all you have to do.”
Nonna’s Italian Garlic Bread
- Loaf of crusty bread
- Olive oil
- Garlic, one clove
- Tomato, one half
Toast your bread with a drizzle of olive oil and when it comes out hot from the oven, cut a garlic clove in half and rub it all over the top of the bread. The heat draws out the oils in the garlic. Then cut a tomato in half and rub it all over the top of the bread ‘til there is just a hint of pink. Enjoy … you’ll be licking your fingers momentarily.