“Three nickels will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat.” ~Old New York saying.
Have you ever been curious about why garlic smells the way it does? Well, wonder no more. Read on about this hearty and versatile member of the lily family and find out how it came to be on everyone’s breath everywhere you would think to look.
If body movements denote their own language and a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many smells make up a sentence? Depends on the sentence, you might say. Well, that’s true. “Jack and Jill went up the hill” doesn’t fare quite the same with our nostrils as: “The garlic in Grandma’s carbonara wafted into the dining room, making all of our mouths water.” “Smells by any other name are still smells”, as one of my neighbors who was never without her gas mask used to say. Certainly within the animal kingdom, smells comprise their very own form of communication. My contention is that so does garlic; for no matter which country one calls home and no matter which language is one’s native tongue, the cuisine of almost every culture recognizes and utilizes garlic in one form or another. In that sense, it is a second language for everyone who crosses its wondrous, smelly path.
A man named Arthur Baer once said that there is no such thing as a little garlic. Whether this is due to its magical culinary power or because there can never be enough protection against vampires hanging in one’s home, is a matter of opinion. The superstition of garlic as a deterrent against evil and vampires is deeply rooted in Balkan folklore. The vampire legend is based partly on a real homicidal maniac; Vlad Tepes Dracula, whose name means devil in Romanian. In the fifteenth century, he ruled Walaachia, which is now part of Romania, as Vlad II and was affectionately known as Vlad the Impaler to his closest friends and enemies. (He didn’t have many of either by the time his reign was finished due to his bloodthirsty predilections.) Bram Stoker and later Hollywood romanticized the vampire, transforming him into a lonely, erotic, tragic figure, seeking lovely damsels to free him from his curse and to join him in an eternal game of chess within the chambers of his dark and drafty Transylvanian castle.
The word vampire comes from the Slavic word obyri or obiri, which evolved into the Bulgarian word vampir. Some say the Greek word , nosphorosos, meaning plague-carrier, that evolved into the old Slavonic word nosferatu is a synonym for the vampire. In our culture the words are interchanged often. Many of the early myths lumped vampires, witches and were- wolves together. It was thought that a vampire could be changed into a wolf. This would occur whenever the bat form wasn’t in stock and Bela Lugosi was working on another film. The vampire would enter the house of the unwary and drink the blood of their children. To protect themselves, the common people would scatter salt or seeds around their doors and hang cloves of garlic in their windows. The vampire was thought to be a compulsive counter and would have to know exactly how many grains of salt or seeds there were before he could enter the house. (This can also be viewed as the beginnings of OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which will be the topic for another article, coming soon to your local theatres.)
Warding off vampires along the misty backwoods of Transylvania is not likely to be one of your biggest concerns about garlic today. (But then again, who knows?) Garlic has its own history as well as its own language. Although it is not certain when it was discovered, it was probably first dispersed by nomads on the steppes of central Asia several thousand years ago. As early as the 8th century BC garlic was growing in the garden of Babylon. Chinese scholars spoke of it as far back as 3000 BC and there is also a reference in the Shih Ching (the book of songs), a collection of ballads said to have been written by Confucius himself. Garlic was so prized in ceremony and ritual, that lambs offered for sacrifice in China were seasoned with it to make them more pleasing to the gods.
Garlic was part of the Sumerian diet in the Middle East over 5,000 years ago. By 1000 AD, it was grown all over the known world, and was universally recognized as a valuable plant. It was introduced into France by Godefroy de Bouillon, not the bouillon cube inventor, but the leader of the First Crusade, who when he returned to France in 1099, was declared King of Jerusalem. Many cultures elevated garlic beyond a dietary staple, and suggested that it had medicinal and spiritual purposes. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, used it for treating infections, wounds and intestinal disorders. Roman legionnaires attributed their courage and stamina to garlic and took it with them as they conquered the world, thus spreading its use and cultivation like bad rumors everywhere they went.
Ancient Egyptians worshipped garlic as a God, and its name was often invoked at oath takings. (It is not known whether the oath takers first rinsed with mouthwash out of respect for the nostrils of the gods.) During the era of Egypt’s great pharaohs, according to ancient papyri, garlic served as food, medicine and offering. It was found in the tomb of Tutankamen and within the funerary complex of Saqqarah as well as in inscriptions in the pyramid of Giza. Garlic was so valuable that 15 pounds of it would purchase a healthy male slave. It is also written that workers building the pyramids were given garlic (as well as onions and radishes) each day to help increase their vitality. It was so important to their diets that it caused work stoppages when the workers were deprived of their allotted ration. According to Charmidas, unfaithful Egyptian husbands relied on garlic’s unique “scented” properties to hide evidence of infidelity. They would chew on a clove or two on their way home from visiting their mistresses so that their whole body was impregnated with the odor, insuring that a jealous wife would be unable to detect another woman’s perfume.
Garlic, known by its Latin name, Allium sativum, may very well be one of Mother Nature’s greatest gifts to man (and woman of course.) It is a powerful natural antibiotic. It reduces blood pressure in hypertension and is useful in lowering “bad cholesterol”. One advantage to using garlic for its antibiotic properties is that it does not destroy the body’s natural intestinal bacteria. It is excellent for use in colds and infections. Garlic oil is often used to treat earaches and ear infections, especially for infants and children. During World War I, garlic was used as a field wound dressing and antiseptic. It has also been shown to be an effective treatment for fungal infections, such as Athlete’s Foot. The active ingredient in garlic, allicin, is destroyed when heated, and is only released from the clove when crushed or bruised. Thus, for most treatments garlic needs to be crushed or raw. (Stay away. This means you!)
Garlic has other uses as well. Peeled cloves placed in a room are said to ward off disease. The whole bulb is hung in new homes to dispel negativity and evil spirits. A clove placed under the pillow of sleeping children is said to protect them. Dreams of eating garlic means that you will uncover secrets. (Maybe now you will find out who the mother of your baby really is!) Garlic is mentioned in the Bible as being used by the Hebrews to increase and maintain virility. Early travelers across the Rocky Mountains inserted garlic into the nostrils of their horses and mules to prevent them from collapsing due to the lack of oxygen. Explorers in the mountains of South America chewed wild garlic to relieve altitude sickness. Native American tribes treated many ailments with wild garlic, although they were helpless against the forces of Manifest Destiny and the eventual demise of their garlicky birthright.
For culinary purposes, one rule of thumb to remember regarding the potency of garlic is: the smaller you cut it, the stronger the flavor. One raw clove finely minced or pressed releases more flavor than a dozen cooked whole cloves. Chopping finely and/or pressing a clove exposes more surfaces to the air, causing a chemical reaction that produces that strong aroma. When cloves are cooked or baked whole, the flavor mellows into a sweet, almost nutty flavor which makes a surprisingly nice addition to desserts, such as ice cream or brownies. Whole, unpierced cloves barely have any aroma at all, while raw garlic is the strongest in flavor. When sautéing, be very careful not to burn it. If you do, the flavor will turn intensely bitter and you’ll have to start all over.
And now the issue we have all been waiting for with bated (or at least somewhat bad) breath. Why does garlic smell the way it does? When cells are ruptured by cutting or pressing, they release an enzyme called allinaise chemically changing the inherent allin into allicin, a sulfur-containing molecule, which results in that pungent mainstay found in kitchens around the world. If you are a garlic lover, it’s wise to surround yourself with others who enjoy it as well, or try munching on parsley to rid yourself of garlic breath. (As far as I know, there is no cure for parsley breath!) It is said that to rid your hands of the smell after peeling or chopping garlic simply wash your hands and then rub them on a chrome faucet. (I don’t know. That’s what they say.)
There are many different types of garlic (Allium). Although only the cultivated variety is utilized medicinally, all of the other species have similar properties in a greater or lesser degree. The Crow Garlic is widely distributed and fairly common, but the bulbs are very small and the labor of digging them out great. It is frequently found in pastures and affects the taste of milk when eaten by cows. Ranson garlic grows in the woods and has a very acrid taste and smell. It also has small bulbs, which renders it impractical. It is, however, quite a beautiful plant with broad leaves that resemble Lily-of-the-Valley and star-like flowers that are a dazzling white. The Field Garlic is rather a rare plant. Both this and the Crow Garlic are often used as potherbs or for flavoring. There are some species of Allium grown in the garden, whose flowers are even sweet smelling, but they are exceptions and even these have the garlic scent in their leaves and roots.
All in all, I’d say garlic was a pretty good deal. I even like the smell and am considering marketing it as perfume. (I had the same idea about manure for horse lovers. That didn’t work but…) In his own way, Bela Lugosi lives within the soul of every dish prepared with garlic; not as a vampire, but rather as a dinner guest who avoids daylight and mirrors and knows a good meal when he sees one. If you run into him among the misty ghosts of Hollywood celluloid, say hello, for I am a fan. But just in case, try some of the Vampire Away Garlic Dip provided by The Snack food Association and included at the end of this article. It’s chilling and frighteningly good with ridged or regular potato chips to all who dare to eat it. Put in a few extra cloves for good measure. After all, you just never know whom you might run into within the Hollywood of your mind.
Vampire-Away Garlic Dip
1/2 cup skim milk
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
2 small garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped chives
1/8 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon onion salt
Go to the nearest cemetery after midnight on a chilly night in October. Blend all the ingredients in the blender until smooth. Then wait and see what happens. If nothing does, go home and enjoy your dip because it worked!