By Colleen Leonardi
After reading Garlic, An Edible Biography (Roost Books, 2014) by travel writer and historian Robin Cherry, I understand why Louis Diat, chef de cuisine of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York for forty-one years, claimed the following: “There are five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and garlic. Without garlic, I simply would not care to live.”
Granted my Italian heritage makes me predisposed to worship at the altar of this cousin to the onion, but I, too, would not know what to do without the presence of its smelly, silky white clustered shape in my life. America was introduced to the allium during the 1950s and 1960s when famous chefs like James Beard and Julia Child were sharing its culinary benefits with avid cooks in the states after falling in love with French cuisine. And one cannot fall in love with French food without falling in love with garlic. It is a staple for the French, like wine and cheese.
So it’s okay if you’re not hip to garlic; it’s not been around in our country’s cooking traditions for as long as say India or China. Never fear, for Robin Cherry’s book helps you understand the amazing medicinal and culinary properties of the plant. She then delivers a how-to section with tips for growing and harvesting garlic. The second half of the book is devoted to over 100 recipes, with everything from dips to salads, pizza, poultry and seafood. She even includes historical recipes, like Goat Stew with Fat, Garlic, Onions, Sour Milk, and Blood. And there is a recipe for Roasted Garlic Crème Brûlée (for the Francophile at heart, I say).
If you’re not predisposed to worship at the altar of the kitchen and more of a garden-bound soul, the book’s rich historical stories and compendium of which heirloom varieties are best for different regions makes it worth your time. For instance, did you know the first mention of garlic is cited in the “world’s oldest known medical text,” the Ebers Papyrus from Ancient Egypt, and that it was recommended for over 61 ailments by the great Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder? Before penicillin was discovered, garlic was one of our main antibiotics, warding off influenza, the plague and other deadly bacteria. And today, researchers are investigating how garlic helps promote prostrate health for men, paving the way for a healthy erection.
The story of garlic is not simply of the little allium that could, but one of how humanity discovered and cultivated this protective plant for the benefit of everything living—from increasing heart health to warding off evil spirits by the bedside of a sleeping child.
Garlic. I’m telling you—don’t be fooled by its foul smell. Explore its benefits for your medicine cabinet or kitchen. And Robin’s book with its history, mythology and politics “behind the world’s most pungent food” is a great place to start to fall in love with this fifth element of the natural world.