Posted on in Healthy Living by Robin Cherry

An Edible Biography


“A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat.”

—Yiddish proverb

Garlic is the Lord Byron of produce, a lusty rogue that charms and seduces you but runs off before dawn, leaving a bad taste in your mouth. Yet despite its powers of seduction, garlic itself is asexual, grown from cloves without pollination. Called everything from rustic cure-all and Russian penicillin to Bronx vanilla and Italian perfume, the sulfurous bulb has permeated the history of humankind (literally) and been variously loved, worshiped, defamed, and despised. King Henry IV of France was baptized with it, and corpses were embalmed with it. It’s credited with curing everything from baldness and scurvy to cancer and the plague and is one of the few products used in the world’s three major ancient healing systems: Indian Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and traditional European medicine.

People throughout the world rely on garlic’s powers of protection, and it is said to ward off vampires and other evil spirits, to protect babies and Belizean cab drivers, to bring luck to soldiers and jockeys, and according to Swedish farmers, to protect cows from trolls.

Sadly, garlic has also been used to discriminate against different ethnic and religious groups, especially Jews, Italians, and Koreans, and “garlic eaters” has been used as a derogatory slur for centuries. Today, with attendance at Gilroy’s annual garlic festival topping 100,000, it’s hard to think of “garlic eater” as an insult. A love for garlic has become a point of pride. You’ve probably never been to a carrot festival, but garlic festivals take place throughout the world from Gilroy, California, and the Hudson Valley, New York, to the Isle of Wight, United Kingdom, and Takko-machi, Japan. Other foods may have fans; garlic has lovers.

Preserved garlic cloves and remnants found in ancient caves and tombs strongly suggest that our ancestors have been using garlic as a food seasoning since their hunting and gathering days. Some speculate that humans may have started using garlic 10,000 years ago, just after the last Ice Age. Garlic was domesticated during the Neolithic period when humans evolved from seminomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers.

Garlic has been credited with powers of both good and evil throughout history. It’s been associated with the devil and used by witches to cast evil spells. On the flip side, it’s been a source of luck and protected both people and animals from demons, witches, the evil eye, the plague, vampires, and the occasional troll. Garlic bulbs have been used in bridal bouquets and love potions as well as to send unwanted lovers packing.

Garlic’s health benefits have also been touted throughout history, and it’s been credited as a plague-beating, infection-fighting, fatmelting, parasite-killing, cholesterol-lowering, immune system–boosting, cancer-preventing, bronchitis-curing, blood pressure–controlling, impotence-treating, ringworm-healing, strength-building, mosquito-repelling pharmacopoeia that improves digestion, circulation, respiratory health, and fertility. And that’s just a partial list.

We know now that most of garlic’s medicinal benefits are derived from sulfur-bearing compounds that are also responsible for its characteristic odor and taste. However, it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that researchers understood the science behind them. In 1844, Austrian chemist Theodor Wertheim used steam distillation to extract an organic sulfur compound from raw garlic. He named it allyl sulfur and attributed garlic’s therapeutic properties to what he called the “evil-smelling oil.”

In 1858 in France, chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was the first scientist to document that garlic has the ability to inhibit the growth of bacteria. Pasteur placed cloves of garlic in a petri dish full of bacteria. A few days later, he noticed that a bacteria-free area surrounded each clove. Pasteur’s work led to the initiation of thousands of subsequent studies that continue to this day.

Although garlic is not as powerful as pharmaceutical antibiotics, it does have some benefits that could be especially valuable at a time when we are facing the specter of antibioticresistant superbugs. Unlike penicillin, for example, garlic is a broad-spectrum antibiotic, meaning it’s effective against a wide range of disease-causing bacteria.

Like many people who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, I have Julia Child to thank for introducing me to garlic. Or more precisely, I have Julia Child to thank for introducing my mother to garlic. Child would repeatedly assure her readers and viewers that they should no longer avoid garlic as something “suspiciously foreign, probably subversive, and certainly very lower-class.” From her homey kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she started nothing less than a culinary revolution, rescuing garlic from its one-time confinement in old ethnic and urban communities and unleashing it on suburban kitchens throughout the country.

Over the past few years, as I’ve delved into its long, fascinating, and sometimes sordid history, garlic has become my Scheherazade, introducing me to tales of prophets, kings, poets, and thieves. I’d be hard-pressed to name another ingredient as polarizing as garlic. People love it or hate it, but no one is ambivalent about it.

Robin’s Go-To Salsa

(Adapted from Chef Rick Bayless’s Fire-Roasted Tomato Salsa)
2 lbs. tomatoes, diced
2 fresh jalapeno peppers, seeds removed
2 tsp. fresh garlic, chopped
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Juice from 1/4 lime

Combine tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, and garlic in a food processor and pulse until you have a coarse puree. Pour into a serving dish and stir in cilantro and lime juice. Season with salt, to taste.

Roasted Garlic Hummus

This chickpea dip, claimed by Lebanon, is made with an entire head of roasted garlic. Try topping it with za’atar, a Middle Eastern blend of dried herbs, sesame seeds, and salt.


2 cups chickpeas, cooked or canned,
rinsed and drained
1 head garlic, roasted and pureed
1/4 cup warm water
2 Tbsp. tahini
1 lemon, juiced
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, to serve
Chopped parsley, for garnish
Paprika, for garnish
Za’atar, for garnish

  1. Combine the chickpeas, garlic, warm water, tahini, lemon juice, and salt in a food processor. Puree until the mixture is smooth and light. Adjust the consistency by adding either a little water or lemon juice. The hummus can be stored at this point in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to three days.
  2. To serve: Allow the hummus to come to room temperature. Spoon it into a bowl, drizzle it with olive oil, and sprinkle it with parsley, paprika, and/or za’atar. Accompany the hummus with crudités, pita or other flatbreads, or crackers.

Roasted Garlic and Quinoa Salad

This salad draws its inspiration from tabbouleh, the Middle Eastern salad of couscous, parsley, and garlic. Quinoa is a protein-packed replacement for couscous, but you can make this salad with other grains, if you prefer. Barley and farro are two great options. Or try a pasta instead, such as fregola or tubettini.


1 head garlic, roasted and pureed
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
4 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup water
3/4 cup quinoa
2 cups baby spinach or arugula
Black olives (optional)
Feta cheese (optional)

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°.
  2. Combine the garlic, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a bowl and whisk the ingredients to combine them. Season with salt and pepper. Set the bowl aside.
  3. Put the tomatoes on a baking sheet, drizzle them with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and sprinkle them with a pinch of salt and pepper. Roast the tomatoes until they darken and have a rich aroma, about 15 minutes. Cool them to room temperature.
  4. Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Add the quinoa. Stir once or twice and return the water to a boil. Turn off the heat and cover the pot tightly. Let the quinoa steam until it is tender, about 20 minutes. Fluff the quinoa with a fork and transfer it to a salad bowl. Let the quinoa cool to room temperature.
  5. Add the tomatoes, spinach or arugula, black olives, and feta (if using). Stir the dressing to recombine and then pour it over the salad. Toss all of the ingredients until they are evenly coated. Serve the salad directly from the salad bowl or on individual plates.

Robin Cherry is the author of From Garlic: An Edible Biography, from which this piece was adapted.

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