The Garlic Issue

Small Blessings


If you live on the Gulf Coast, you know about the holy trinity: onions, bell pepper and celery. It is to Cajun and Creole cuisine what pasta is to Italy—the foundation, the alpha and omega. But if you look at most Cajun recipes, you’ll notice that a fourth ingredient is invariably called for: garlic. If the other three are the trinity, garlic is the pope. Gumbo? Add garlic. Jambalaya? Add garlic. Boiled crawfish? Hurl as many bulbs into the pot as you can carry home from Rouses, just toss them in with wild abandon. Boudin? Add garlic! (Honestly, garlic is the only ingredient you want to know is in boudin; just eat it and do not ask questions.)

Where did this magical onion—garlic is an allium, from the same family as onions and chives—come from? What’s its story? Aren’t you a little curious about the pope’s life before it was flavoring dishes ex cathedra? Buckle up, because you are about to learn more about garlic than you ever wanted to know.


Garlic is native to Asia but can grow anywhere with a mild climate. When you think of garlic, you probably think of southern fare or Italian cuisine, but if you want to talk about a culinary tradition that really values its garlic, look no further than Chinese food. Indeed, depending on where you buy it, the garlic you are tossing like grenades into your crawfish boil probably came from China, which produces seventy percent of the garlic in the world—more than 21 million tons every year. Partially, it is because the Chinese have been doing it for a long time. Garlic was first cultivated there around 4,000 years ago, probably brought over from Mongolia. (It was being cultivated simultaneously in Mesopotamia. Garlic gets around.) It was prized in China for its perceived medicinal value and of course as a culinary delight. But everyone the world over loved the stuff. Archeologists even found it in King Tut’s tomb, and it appears in all manner of ancient text.

It is hard to say when it was made pope, though, or who so elected it. Likewise, the holy trinity moniker has mysterious origins, though was likely a regionalism, Catholic culture being so strong in Louisiana. The moniker was undoubtedly made famous by Paul Prudhomme, who brought Cajun and Creole cooking to the world. A lazy man’s guide to this style of cuisine would advise: If somebody asks why something is the way it is, just say, “Paul Prudhomme, probably.”

If you’re going to cook with his holiness, you might as well learn how to buy it. Garlic season spans midsummer to early fall, which means that is when it is going to be freshest. Unless you are the Garlic Whisperer, though, it might be hard to notice either way. Not all garlic is created equal. A bulb should be solid, with its skin firm and unbroken. Beneath, the cloves should be a good size. You’ll know it when you see it. When you give a bulb a squeeze, you’re checking to make sure it doesn’t feel somehow empty inside. (Your garlic should have meaning and purpose.) If the bulb is sprouting, it’s probably been out for a little too long. In produce and in life, there are plenty of bulbs in the bin. Look elsewhere. Anyway, choosing garlic is not exactly like solving a Rubik’s Cube. When you take it home, do not stick it in the refrigerator. The idea is to keep it dry, the way you would with onions. Sticking it in a paper bag and storing it in the pantry is advised. It’s not like kale, which goes bad on the drive home. A bulb should last you a couple of weeks, and longer if conditions are good.

All this said, if you are like me, you choose your garlic a little differently. Look for the jar whose seal isn’t broken. Choose between the light green cap or the dark blue cap. Done. Not that mincing garlic is exactly long division, either. Here’s how to do it. First pull a clove from the bulb. Chop off the little root side. On a cutting board, smoosh it with the side of a chef’s knife. Or whatever knife you have. The little skin will be torn and loosened in the smooshening, so just peel it away. If you have a fancy knife, rock the blade over the clove until you have lots of tiny garlics. If you have a cheap knife, just chop it up the best you can, or get the jar kind. Nobody will know. Incidentally, if ever you are cooking and reach into the pantry for garlic but can’t find any, don’t panic. An eighth of a teaspoon of garlic powder is the rough flavor equivalent of a single clove. If you don’t have garlic powder either, then definitely panic. Dinner is ruined. Again.

You might be wondering why you have to mince garlic at all. I mean isn’t it all a bit much? The reason, though, is that it is the only way to get that garlic flavor you love. During the mincing process, you are rupturing the plant’s cells, which in turn releases enzymes that cause chemical compounds to break down. It’s not a one-time thing, either: those compounds will keep reacting for quite a while. Those reactions are why garlic is so potent when compared with its enormous big brother, the onion, and its weirdo hippie cousin, the leek.

Out in nature, where all God’s creatures kill one another, this is a survival mechanism for wild garlic. Eaten raw, they are like flavor landmines, and animals just can’t stand it. Studies have shown garlic still growing in the ground to repel things like mosquitoes and some birds. They are also believed by some farmers to repel pests like moles and rabbits. In Eastern Europe, the notion of garlic repelling wolves evolved into garlic repelling vampires. (See the vampire piece I wrote elsewhere in this magazine. Reader, how I slave for you!)

I mean, warding off the supernatural is pretty heavy lifting for such a little vegetable. What could be the downside of such a beast of burden? Mostly it makes your food taste great and your breath smell terrible. But it’s so much worse than that, because eat enough of it and it will also give you a pungent body odor, too. Which seems unfair because eating chocolate won’t make you smell like cupcakes, but that’s just how things are in nature. The best tasting foods either make you gain weight or smell like a bag of Fritos (which themselves are just sweat-flavored corn chips. You know I’m right and can’t unread that). This is because of a chemical compound in garlic that is absorbed into the blood and eventually works its way to your various organs. It’s what makes your breath smell bad (when it hits your lungs) and your skin smell worse. (But not bad enough to repel mosquitos. That’s a myth.)

“Ah,” you say aloud, gripping this magazine a little tighter and feeling as though you might be onto a medical breakthrough. “If garlic does something to the lungs and something to the skin, might it have different effects on other organs? Perhaps something healthy?” And the answer is maybe! Because scientists have already thought of this and tested it. (Better luck next time.) Maybe, for example, it slightly lowers your blood pressure—one reason, if you are on blood thinners, doctors discourage you from eating garlic. Maybe it reduces your risk of stomach, intestinal and prostate cancers. Maybe it doesn’t help with the common cold at all, though, so feel free to stop gobbling cloves and start wearing your mask over your nose.

Regardless of what scientists say, with their killjoy peer-reviewed studies and lives dedicated to understanding things, garlic throughout history has been hailed for its medicinal and restorative powers. Since the dawn of time, no matter the malady, the solution was garlic. Diabetes? Garlic. High blood pressure? Garlic. (They sort of got that one right.) The plague? Garlic. Roman gladiators feasted on the stuff, and the builders of the pyramids were fed it when they got too tired from, you know, building the pyramids. People throughout history were also big on burning accused witches at the stake; that your illnesses were caused by evil spirits in the body; and that trepanation—drilling holes in your skull—was just the bee’s knees when it came to treating migraines. Note that this was pre-anesthesia, and the tools being used weren’t exactly precision machined and disinfected stainless steel. The point is, let’s not overly romanticize the curatives of old.

If myth and folklore are any indication, garlic can have some other interesting effects as well. It is a well-known fact that garlic wards off vampires, but it is also known to scare off werewolves with equal effectiveness. Demons just hate the stuff. It might also transform bears into people. The mythical birth of the Korean nation involves a bear who ate twenty cloves of garlic and some mugwort for one hundred days. On day twenty-one, she was transformed, and would go on to give birth to Dangun, the legendary founder of the Korean nation. So if you have a bear and do not want one, but also do not want to give it away, and want to found Korea … well it’s worth trying.

But whether for real food or imagined medicine, little garlic—with its papery skin that gets everywhere and its powerful flavor that makes Cajun food sing—deserves our respect. It’s not easy to run with onion, celery and bell pepper, but garlic does it with ease. It doesn’t need to be part of the trinity. It can stand alone in St. Peter’s Basilica, waving serenely at the adoring crowds.