The Slayer of Monsters:
The History of Garlic
EMG Garlic Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, shares things you didn’t know you didn’t know about that most polarising of ingredients, garlic. It is an ingredient that fuelled the building of the pyramids and was later believed to help ward off the plague. And yet, it was also an ingredient whose smell could have you refused entry to ancient temples and received withering words from the great bard, William Shakespeare himself.
So come with us and find out the true history of garlic.
EAT MY GLOBE
THE SLAYER OF MONSTERS: THE HISTORY OF GARLIC
Uh, what does garlic do when it gets hot?
Oh, I don’t know. What?
Takes its cloves off.
Takes its cloves off. Fantastic. Ah.
Right. Let’s get on with it. Shall we?
Hi everybody, I’m Simon Majumdar and welcome to a brand new episode of Eat My Globe, a podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And on today’s episode, we are going to be talking about an ingredient that, through history, has proved itself to be one of the most polarizing of all. It’s an ingredient that seems to be loved or hated in equal measure. It’s an ingredient that, as we shall see, has been revered as a cure-all, had festivals held in its honor every year, and led to the creation of restaurants that dedicate their entire menu to dishes containing it, even desserts. And yet, at the same time, it is an ingredient, that through the course of history, has been reviled for its pungency. And, it’s an ingredient that, for over 5,000 years, has been used not only for its culinary benefits but also as a medicine, a warder off of evil spirits, and a provider of athletic prowess and sexual vigor.
It is an ingredient that is now used in just about every cuisine on earth, and an ingredient that the United States alone produces over 400 million pounds every year.
Yes, folks, today on Eat My Globe, we are going to be talking about the history of one of my favorite ingredients: garlic.
So, let’s start as usual with a definition of our subject for today. Our good pals at Merriam Webster define garlic as,
“a European allium (Allium sativum) widely cultivated for its pungent compound bulbs much used in cookery.”
The term “allium” in this definition means that garlic is a vegetable that comes from the same family as other vegetables many of which we are very familiar with today such as onions, leeks and chives.
There are two main types of garlic. Soft neck garlic (Allium sativum), which is the type of garlic you are most likely to find in your grocery store, and hard neck garlic (Allium sativum ophioscorodon), which is closer in resemblance to “gourmet” garlic.
Now, as for those many of you who, like me, are always fascinated in the etymology of words, the word garlic itself originates from the Old English term, “gārlēac.” The word “gār” is taken from the Old English word for “spear” and reflect the similarity people thought a clove of garlic had with a spear head. And “lēac” referred to the vegetable leeks that are still readily available today. So, in effect, the word garlic referred to a “spear leek” or a “leek that looked like a spear.”
So, there you go.
However, although the current definition refers to garlic being a European vegetable and one that is primarily used in cooking, as we will find out during this episode, its origins began very far away from Europe. And its uses, were far, far wider than its purely culinary applications.
There is, as with so many ingredients, much debate when it comes to deciding the exact region in which garlic first began to grow wild, and then to be cultivated. Candidates suggested include regions of Central Asia – now the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
While it might be hard to be 100% certain of garlic’s botanical origins, or what type of garlic was originally planted, what is pretty much accepted is that it is one of the oldest cultivated ingredients in the world and went from simply being harvested from the wild to being actively cultivated between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago.
From the beginnings of its cultivation in Central Asia, garlic was used in trade with the peoples of neighboring areas. And there are records of it subsequently being traded in Mesopotamia by the 4th millennium B.C.E. In fact, a stone tablet, with figures in Cuneiform – the ancient Babylonian system of writing – was recently discovered in that area, and it offered up what is believed to be one of the oldest recipes ever discovered, which contained garlic. This recipe is for a style of lamb stew.
“Meat is used. You prepare water. You add fine-grained salt, dried barley cakes, onion, Persian shallot, and milk. You crush and add leek and garlic.”
And, the earliest remains of garlic were found in the famous archeological site the “Cave of the Treasure” in Ein Gedi, Israel, which date from around the same period.
In 2000 B.C.E., the cultivation and consumption of garlic had also moved east to ancient China through ancient trade routes and through the relatively more “modern” Silk Road, as well as through the movement of the Mongols. In China, as it was to be in so many of the ancient civilizations in which it became a staple, garlic was used for its medicinal properties as well as for the pungent flavors it brought to food. It is also believed that it was used as a food preservative, to treat insomnia and depression, and used with ginger and other herbs to treat fatigue and to increase male potency. Garlic is mentioned using the name ta suan in a 6th century book called Chhi Min Yao Shu on agriculture.
Garlic also found a use in the medicine cabinets of ancient India. It was referred to in Sanskrit as Lasuna or Rasona, and known as the “Slayer of Monsters.” It is recommended in both the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita – which are two of the three foundational texts of Ayurvedic medicine – for the treatment of heart disease and arthritis, and promoting good vision, voice and skin complexion. Although, as we shall see as happened throughout history, the more high born Brahmin classes and priests were not allowed to eat garlic due to its purported aphrodisiac qualities.
In ancient Egypt, garlic was given an equal amount of importance as food and medicine. This was not only for its culinary and medicinal properties, but also for the belief that the ancient Egyptians held in its ability to ward off evil spirits. Primarily, garlic was fed to those in the laboring classes in the belief that its consumption would help them maintain their strength and increase productivity in the construction of major works, such as the pyramids of Giza. The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, mentions the large amounts paid to feed the workers and says,
“Inscriptions on the plates of the Egyptian pyramids show how much their builders used garlic for this vegetable, 1600 talents of silver were spent.”
And, as a side note, I think it is interesting to see how many of the sources I read during my research for this episode still held on to the popular misconception that these magnificent structures were built by slaves. In fact, more recent discoveries show that the mass numbers of workers who toiled to build the pyramids were highly prized and well paid workers, and that while their work was often carried out as part of a feudal style obligation to their lords, it was a very different concept from the modern day notion of slavery. In fact, such workers were even capable of withdrawing labor and protesting if they felt that payments for working were overdue or their rations were in short supply. And garlic was very definitely a key part of these essential rations.
While the consumption of garlic in ancient Egypt appears to have primarily been associated with the lower classes, its use also appears amongst the belongings of the upper echelons as well. Heads of garlic were found during the excavations of that most famous of archeological digs, the tomb of King Tutankhamun. And at the foot of the great pyramid of Giza – the resting place of Pharaoh Khufu, or Cheops – archaeologists found a clove of garlic in the grave of a mummified woman believed to be an aristocrat.
References to garlic in ancient Egypt can also be found in the Codex Ebers also known as the Ebers Papyrus. This is one of the oldest compilations of medical texts known to survive and the 110-page document dates from around 1550 B.C.E. In the manuscript, the ancient Egyptians show a remarkable understanding of the circulatory system and the nature of heart disease. It also includes a variety of herbal remedies including the use of garlic.
Which brings us to the third belief the ancient Egyptians had about the properties of garlic. In addition to its culinary and medical benefits, the ancient Egyptians also believed that garlic was one of the key weapons in warding off evil spirits and curses. This is perhaps why they can be found in the tombs of kings and aristocrats. Mmmm, I can attest to this, because after I have one of my favorite dishes “chicken cooked with 40 cloves of garlic,” most people definitely keep a suitable distance. Now, look on the Eat My Globe website for a fantastic recipe. So you can try this dish at home for yourself.
But, let us continue.
Other ancient civilizations valued garlic too. It receives a mention in the Book of Numbers Chapter 11, verses 4 to 6 of the Old Testament, where the Israelites, who are wandering in the wilderness after their emancipation from slavery in Egypt, complained of their manna every meal diet plan.
“Now the mixed multitude who were among them yielded to intense craving; so the children of Israel also wept again and said: ‘Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!’”
We also see mentions of garlic in the Talmud, the primary book of Jewish law and theology. There, Ezra the Scribe created an ordinance for garlic to be eaten on the eve of Sabbath. Other sages also noted the five key properties of garlic, explaining that,
“It satiates, it warms the body, it brightens a person’s countenance, it increases semen and kills parasites in the intestines.”
Eating garlic became such a part of Jewish identity that the Mishna, or the written form of Jewish oral laws, says,
“If he vows [not to benefit] from garlic eaters, he may not benefit from Israelites and Samaritans (Cutheans).”
The ancient Greeks, too, loved themselves a bit of garlic and it was a staple in their cuisine, particularly again for those in the lower classes. However, archaeologists did find garlic remains dating back to 1700 to 1400 B.C.E. in King Minos’ Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. So maybe some upper class Greeks also loved garlic.
Once again, ancient Greeks saw garlic as having medicinal benefits as well as culinary. They consumed it in large quantities. Further, in the collation of medical texts that is ascribed to Hippocrates, there are references to the use of garlic. For example, in the text of “Nature of Woman,” the author prescribes the use of garlic for,
“displacement of the womb”
“And let her eat a lot of garlic, both raw and boiled, and drink its juice as a soup, and let her make use of emollient foods.”
However, eating garlic may lead to bad consequences. In the text Regimen II, the author says,
“It is good for the body though bad for the eyes. For by making a considerable purgation of the body it dulls the sight. When boiled it is weaker than when raw. It creates flatulence because it stops the pneuma [i.e. a vital breath].”
So, beware of the mighty wind, everyone.
As in ancient Egypt, garlic was valued for its supposed benefits to strength, energy and to work capacity. It formed part of the diet for soldiers as they went off to battle, and there is even evidence that garlic was part of the diet of athletes prior to competing in the ancient version of the Olympic games.
Also, like ancient Egyptians, the ancient Greeks also believed in garlic’s ability to ward off evil spirits. Garlic was particularly associated with the goddess Hecate, who would protect travelers from demons. However, priests who oversaw the worship at temples to other gods, such as those at the Temple of Cybele, were often a little less favorable to garlic and they refused to allow anyone to enter the building if they failed a garlic odor breath test.
Just as so many other parts of their culture, the Romans adopted many of the beliefs and habits of the ancient Greeks, and they too began to value the supposed strength giving properties of garlic and its abilities as a curative.
Here, too, the ancient Romans saw garlic as a staple for the military and fed it to their soldiers and sailors. Indeed, they included garlic in their ship’s manifest.
Garlic’s use in medicine began to develop in ancient Rome as well. In Volume IV, Book XIX, Chapter 34 of his massive work, “The Natural History,” Pliny the Elder gives detailed information not only on how to grow garlic successfully, but also on how to prepare it so that it does not offer up,
“An offensive smell to the breath.”
He also notes a number of other uses for garlic which included among many others, keeping off serpents, treating wounds from animal bites, easing hoarseness, reducing tumors, curing coughs, and, when combined with wine and fresh coriander, acting as an aphrodisiac. It is also mentioned by 1st century physician, Dioscorides, in his work, “Materia Medica,” who says that garlic,
“Eaten, it draws out broadworms and draws away urine.”
Eiw. That’s all I’ve got to say about that. Eiw.
With its widespread medicinal use and as an aphrodisiac, some say ancient Romans consumed a lot of garlic. But then again, some also say that its pungency in food and the impact it had on the odor of body and breath meant that Romans did not use garlic frequently in their cooking except to feed the working class and soldiers. Whatever the truth, “De Re Coquinaria,” or “The Art of Cooking,” the famous collection of recipes attributed to Marcus Gavius Apicius, infrequently mentions garlic in his recipes. And when he does, it appears to be combined with other herbs that may counteract the smell, such as this recipe for a dish called “Salacaccabia.”
“HOLLOW OUT AN ALEXANDRINE LOAF OF BREAD, SOAK THE CRUMBS WITH POSCA [a mixture of water, wine, vinegar or lemon juice] AND MAKE A PASTE OF IT. PUT IN THE MORTAR PEPPER, HONEY MINT, GARLIC, FRESH CORIANDER, SALTED COW’S CHEESE, WATER AND OIL. WINE POURED OVER BEFORE SERVING.”
That actually sounds rather good. I might give that a try. Mmmm. Okay.
Although it is highly likely that countries in Europe were aware of garlic at an earlier stage, because of trade, and because of the use of garlic by the Romans as they conquered their territories, it is not until the Middle Ages, or the medieval period – which spanned from the 5th to the 14th Century – that we begin to see it really enter the culinary consciousness of the people. It became part of the medicinal herbs and spices grown in the gardens tended by Christian monks. Charlemagne became sole ruler of the Frankish Kingdom, and in 800 C.E., Pope Leo III crowned him emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne then issued his Capitulare de Villis Imperialibus, which listed plants that should be grown in his subjects’ gardens. Garlic was one of them.
And in the 9th century, garlic’s medicinal benefits were lauded in Ireland through an anonymous verse.
“Garlic with May Butter
Cureth all disease
Drink with goat’s white milk
Take along with these.”
Meanwhile, in England around the 12th century, the Abbott of Cirencester, Alexander Neckham, began writing one of the first recipes using garlic. Neckham was renowned as a theologian, a scientist, and a writer – he wrote a book called “De Utensilibus” or “On Instruments,” which is the first European book to discuss the use of the magnetic compass in navigation. He suggested that garlic be used in a number of culinary preparations.
“A roast pork is prepared diligently on a grid, frequently basted, and laid on the grid just as the coals cease to smoke. Let condiments be avoided other than pure garlic or a simple garlic sauce.”
Now that does sounds good.
In 1390, one of the oldest documents of cookery in England called, “A Form of Cury,” was written. In it, there are a number of mentions of garlic including one for “Chykens in Hocchee,” which goes as follows:
“Take Chykenns and scald hem. take parsel and sawge without . . .”
-- This is all. . . It’s in mid. . . it’s in Early English. Which goes as follows. I’m going to do my best to translate the Early English.
“Take Chykenns and scald hem. take parsel and sawge without eny oþere erbes. take garlec an grapes and stoppe the Chikenns ful and seeþ hem in gode broth. so þat þey may esely be boyled þerinne.”
Got that? Ah, a little confusing. [Inaudible]. But it sounds like it is a recipe. Stuffed chicken, basically. They like to stuff chickens.
During the middle ages, garlic’s popularity was not limited to recipes. Indeed, its medicinal properties were very much valued during this time. Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century Abbess of Rupertsberg, mystic, and poet, wrote that raw rather than cooked garlic was more beneficial. And during the horrors of the 14th century bubonic plague, otherwise known as the “Black Death,” garlic eaters allegedly escaped death all because of their love for this odorous vegetable. You’ve probably seen iconic images during this time of plague doctors wearing long pointy beak like masks. Those masks would have been filled with flowers herbs and spices, such as garlic, to ward off the ill effects of the Miasmas or foul air that they believed would have propagated the disease.
Garlic was also included in another ingredient that is still available today and which is believed to have had its origins during a plague outbreak either in the medieval port of Marseille or Toulose. The so called, “Four Thieves Vinegar,” is a concoction which mythology tells us was a secret potion of four thieves who braved an outbreak of the plague to rob the people of the city. When finally caught, they offered to share the reason why they had not fallen victim to the plague in return for their lives. The result was a recipe that contained vinegar, herbs and garlic. Whatever the truth of the story, there are reasons to believe that such a concoction might have been successful because of the antibacterial properties of both the vinegar and garlic.
French priests too believed in the power of garlic to ward off the plague and were known to both consume and carry garlic while caring for the sick and dying.
However, despite the fact that garlic was considered valuable for its medicinal properties, it was still an ingredient that was considered unsuitable for those of a more couth persuasion particularly because of its pungent odor. In Act 4, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Bottom warns his company of players,
“And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and I do not doubt but to hear them say, it is a sweet comedy. No more words: away! go, away!”
But not all high-born people looked at garlic with disdain. In France, now a country with which people readily associate garlic in its cuisine, King Henry IV, who was crowned in 1589, was allegedly baptized in garlic water after he was born to protect him from evil spirits. As an adult, he was so fond of eating garlic, that he became known as Le Roi d’Ail – or the Garlic King – and apparently his proclivity for chomping on garlic was such that a contemporary wag declared that he had,
“breath that would fell an ox at twenty paces.”
Over the period known as the Renaissance, which began in Italy, and took place from the 14th century through the 17th century, the use of garlic in European cuisines began to expand. In fact, Bartolomeo Scappi, who we’ve previously talked about in our episode on The History of Cheese and who cooked for six popes during his lifetime, used garlic in the recipes included in his masterwork, “Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi, Cuoco Secreto di Papa Pio V” or “The Book of Bartolomeo Scappi, Cooking Secrets of Pope Pio V.” His recipes using garlic included fried frogs in verjuice sauce, stuffed eggplant, garlic sauce, nosella sauce or a sauce with walnuts and almonds, fried squash, zazzere or squash rinds.
From Italy, the use of garlic moved to France, particularly after the marriage of Florentine noblewoman, Catherine de Medici, to Henry, Duke of Orleans, later to become King Henry II of France in 1533. She brought with her garlic and chefs from her own court, who, at that period in time, were making elegant dishes previously unseen in France. They presumably imported many of the techniques and ingredients that they were familiar with in Florence. Although, it is worth saying that the use of garlic in French cuisine, as it developed over the years, was probably a good deal more subtle than the stereotype which still lingers when many people think of fine French dining. It’s a stereotype that has been prevalent in England since the mid-18th century, and is exemplified by William Hogarth’s famous, if nationalistic, painting, with the rather long title, “O The Roast Beef of Old England (The Gate of Calais) from 1748, where a politically exiled Scotsman is depicted in Calais, France eating garlic by way of defining him as a treasonous Catholic to the Protestant British king..
Obviously, one could go into very specific detail about the increasing popularity of the use of garlic in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe, both in culinary and medicinal use. And, if I was to start to talk about the growth of the mythology in Eastern Europe as a tool to ward off vampires, I would probably have to start a whole new podcast.
However, we only have limited time here on Eat My Globe, so for the last few minutes of this episode, what I would like to examine is how garlic made its way from Europe to the Americas in general, and then to look at its use in my current homeland, the United States of America.
But before we move across the pond, one other major impact of garlic’s growing popularity in Europe was that as major European nations such as Spain, France and Portugal, began their colonial endeavors in the early part of the Renaissance, they began to take ingredients such as garlic with them, not only to feed explorers and soldiers on their journeys, but also to cultivate in their newly colonialized lands.
This transaction is covered by a term that was created by an American historian, Alfred W. Crosby, in his work, The Columbian Exchange, in which he talks about the transference of people and animals that forms part of a system of exchange between the New World and the Old World. These included, of course, vast numbers of slaves from West Africa, animals such as pigs and cows, and ingredients such as chilis, tomatoes and potatoes to the Old World from the New, and items such as wheat, coffee, tea and, of course, garlic to the New World from the Old.
Over time, these ingredients became part of the local food culture, and it would be hard now to imagine the cuisines of Central and Southern America without garlic as part of their culinary arsenal.
In the territories that were later to become part of the United States of America, it’s not surprising that garlic was most used in areas such as the South and Southwest, which were primarily under Spanish influence. However, garlic does get a mention in a cookbook known as “American Cookery, or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, From the Imperial Plumb to Plain Cake. Adapted to this Country, and All Grades of Life,” -- wow! What. . . they had big titles back then, didn’t they. We should do more of that. Phew. Anyway.
. . . which was published in 1796, and attributed to Amelia Simmons, and generally recognized as the first truly American cookbook. In the book, garlic is described as,
“Garlicks, tho’ used by the French, are better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery.”
So, it took a while for the use of garlic to catch on in the United States. In “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America,” edited by Andrew F. Smith and entries on garlic written by Linda Griffith and Fred Griffith, they point to the seminal “The Cook Book by ‘Oscar” of the Waldorf,” published in 1896, which was authored by Oscar Tschirky and which contains 3,455 recipes. They claim, of that staggering number, only one highlighted garlic.
At that time in the United States, in most cases, the use of garlic was primarily seen in the cooking of European immigrants and primarily, Italians. This led to garlic being knighted with a diner slang to describe it that might now seem, unfortunately, racially slanted – these included Bronx Vanilla, Halitosis, and Italian Perfume.
By the middle of the 20th century, however, the use of garlic had become more prevalent. The “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America,” cites, as an example, “The New York Times Cookbook” written by Craig Claiborne and published in 1961. As the Oxford Encyclopedia notes,
“Although only two of the fifteen hundred recipes in the book contained the word ‘garlic’ in the title, there were dozens of others in which a clove or two had made its way onto the page (sometimes qualified as optional).”
The Oxford Encyclopedia also quotes a James Beard article on an old recipe from the Provence region of France, “Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic” – and don’t forget, my recipe for this will be on the Eat My Globe website – of which it says,
“Thousands of his readers tried it and liked it.”
And, even in the 20th century, garlic was still called upon for its medicinal properties. During World War I, it was used to treat war wounds and to combat amoebic dysentery, and during World War II, when supplies of antibiotics were running low, the Russians turned to this ancient helper using garlic to such an amount that it became known as “Russian Penicillin.”
And, certainly by now, it would be hard to imagine much of American cuisine existing without the presence of at least the odd clove of garlic in many of the recipes. Given that the average person in the United States, as of 2015, consumes around two pounds of garlic a year, and the country itself produces 400 million pounds of garlic annually, it is no surprise that there are restaurants – such as The Stinking Rose in Los Angeles and San Francisco – that are solely dedicated to its consumption. Garlic has even spurred Gilroy, a city in my own home state of California, to proclaim itself as the “Garlic Capital of the World.” The Gilroy Garlic Festival attracted nearly 85,000 people in 2019 alone. Clearly, garlic is in demand.
So that seems like a good place for us to leave the story of garlic. A story that has taken us from Central Asia, through China, India, ancient Greece and Rome, through the Medieval period of Europe, and across to the Americas. It is a story that takes garlic from being a medicine and a powerful weapon against the forces of evil, to finding itself in the cooking pots of just about every cuisine on earth. All at the same time as being vilified for its impact on breath and bodily odor.
And, if you ever do find yourself suffering from a bout of garlic breath, why not do what the ancient Romans did all those centuries ago and eat a sprig of parsley. Trust me it works.
Now, I’m going off to enjoy that chicken that I cooked with 40 cloves of garlic that has been baking nicely in the oven while I recorded this.
So I’ll see you next week, folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
[Bird chirping sound]
and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: April 27, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.