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One Good Thing: Garlic, a perfect food

The fiery vegetable I almost forgot.

Piles of garlic bulbs.
Garlic in southwest France.
Georges Gobet/AFP via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s hard to complain about eating French cheese and baguette and rillettes and luscious stone fruit for weeks on end. I’d had steaming bowls of mussels and crispy-skinned rotisserie chickens and buttery potatoes and plenty of chocolate croissants. But it wasn’t until I’d been in Paris for about a month that I realized what I’d been missing. My tastebuds had been longing for something, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

Luckily, my husband and I had scheduled a trip midway through our Parisian stay to visit a friend’s home on Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples, for a long weekend. When we arrived, we found our friends on the beach. “We need lunch!” they said, and we clambered up some stairs to a restaurant overlooking the sparkling, dark blue sea. We ordered several bottles of Prosecco and bowls of seafood pasta and, crucially, a pile of fresh bruschetta, the crusty slices of bread topped with oozing tomatoes.

I bit into one and my tongue snapped to attention, burning just a little, the taste spreading across all four corners of my palate. I looked down and saw the tiny white flecks mixed into the tomatoes. It was like tasting a memory: Garlic! Fresh, raw, pungent, fiery garlic. My craving had been answered.

2012 Salone del Gusto
Garlic piled high at a market in Turin, Italy.
Jacopo Raule/Getty Images

French cuisine uses plenty of garlic, of course — and increasingly more of it as you head south. It’s considered a quintessential French vegetable. But it’s often more subtle, and more integrated into the dish, than it is in Italy. When it shows up, it’s frequently roasted or fried or in confit form, its fire tamed and altered by heat and fat and patience. In much of Italy, on the other hand, it’s ubiquitous; the more the better, the more pungent the better.

But garlic is a cosmopolitan plant, a citizen of the world. People all over the globe have been growing and eating it for thousands of years, starting on the Asian continent in places like China and India. It had culinary and medicinal applications, everything from treating infections to warding off malevolent spirits. Cloves of garlic were found in Tutankhamen’s Egyptian tomb when it was excavated in 1922. The ancient Romans loved it.

Roman invaders brought garlic to Europe in the medieval era, and it made its way to the Americas in the 17th century. But depending on where you were, it could be considered special, the territory of the wealthy, or perhaps suspect, because it was associated with immigrants and foreigners, often seen as poor, dirty, and maybe degenerate.

In the early 20th century, garlic was still particularly hard to find in England, viewed with suspicion by the meat-and-two-vegetables home cooks. Its adoption in that country is substantially due to Elizabeth David, a gadfly of an Englishwoman who rode out the war in various Mediterranean countries, Egypt, and India. When she returned to her homeland after the war, she found it dismal and gray, still groaning under the weight of austerity measures that kept food bland and uninspiring.

Wistfully thinking of the bright, fresh ingredients she ate particularly in Italy, she started writing about them, eventually producing a book entitled A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950. For an English chef with no connection to the Mediterranean in their training, reading it was a little bit like writing a fantasy novel. Ingredients like olive oil, basil, eggplants, and, of course, garlic were still virtually impossible to find. For David, it was as much a declaration of hope as an attempt to capture memories. Some day the dreariness and austerity would be over, and if people asked for olive oil and garlic, they might be able to get it.

And indeed, they could. David wrote many other books exploring other cuisines and food history. She became a revered magazine writer, and eventually opened a shop where cooks could find hard-to-locate kitchen equipment. But it was her love of garlic, and all the things that accompany it, and the cultures that used it so well, that sparked a revolution in one small country, one with long-lasting reverberations. (It’s not hard to find garlic in England now.)

Garlic Drying In The Greenhouse At Tyntesfield
Freshly harvested garlic drying in a greenhouse in the UK.
Tessa Bunney/In Pictures via Getty Images Images

I’ve got more French in my heritage than Italian, but in my home cookery I am deeply garlic-forward. If a recipe calls for two cloves, that means at least four, maybe six. Garlic goes in every pan just as the onions finish browning and softening, sizzling for a minute before the vegetables or shrimp or whatever I’m cooking gets added. (In a less culinarily sophisticated example, the proper topping for popcorn, in my book, is garlic salt.)

Garlic’s appeal doesn’t come from being some kind of antioxidant wonder food, though science suggests it is. Nor am I particularly worried about vampires lurking around my door.

There’s simply something indescribably perfect about a garlic clove, about the specific kind of heat it adds to a dish. Taking cues from the French and the Italians, I love how it develops depending on how you cook it, the many things it can be. Slip cloves beneath the skin of a whole chicken before you roast it, and they’ll bring a savory sweetness to the meat. Slice it up and fry it, sprinkle it over a platter of braised greens, and you have a delectable garnish. Mince it into tiny bits and add to a spread, and it’s spice. Braise it in oil or roast it whole and you can spread it onto bread. The curly, bright green scapes that sprout from it in the springtime are a touch of mouthwatering almost-salty fire when chopped and added to scrambled eggs. It’s a perfect food.

But I don’t think about it till it runs out, which means I cheat, sometimes. I buy minced garlic in jars because I run through it so fast. Have you ever tried to make a dish that calls for garlic without garlic? The results are sad, flat, tasting like a light’s gone out.

When I smell garlic on my fingertips now, I think of Elizabeth David. I also think of that bruschetta on the beach in Ischia, and the beautiful head of garlic I bought at a market when we got back to Paris. I think of the mussels in garlic-wine broth I had at a cafe down the boulevard and the escargot I ordered soon after, all buttery and garlicky and bright. And I am awfully glad that I live in a world that has writers, and cooks, and experimenters, and big bulbs of garlic in it.

For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.