Ode to Garlic

I don’t think I peeled a clove of garlic until I was at least 21.

It wasn’t because I didn’t prepare my own food. I cooked through most of college and acquired all kinds of ingenious, makeshift cooking skills using a gas-ring fueled by a penny meter in a narrow kitchen with no oven, no fridge and that I shared with two trainee teachers who lived in the front room and always seemed to speak in Welsh when I was around.

Cooking in a Bedsitter

The essential student cookbook then was Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter (first published 1961, in print for 40 years and now re-issued). It’s still an entertaining read. It was a useful source of ideas but her recipes often included meat which I couldn’t afford and didn’t much like.

It did introduce me – at least in name – to a range of exotic culinary items – risotto and ratatouille for example.

I had never seen an artichoke so this description was helpful:  “This looks like a cross between a pineapple and a green fir cone”. 

But no garlic.

Larger Than Life, Artichoke Tami Cardnella 2017 “a cross between a pineapple and a green fir cone”

And it wasn’t because my parents didn’t understand the health benefits of garlic – indeed they bought jars of garlic pearls at the health food store for that reason.

It was because, well – garlic – you just didn’t have any. And there wasn’t any to buy. And if you did, you wouldn’t know what to do with it. And if you did know and then had used it- and began to smell of garlic – that would be another nail in the teenage social coffin. Being vegetarian – being different – was bad enough and had already turned domestic science class into a running battle.

So it was with special pleasure that I planted the garlic bed this week. I didn’t get round to it last year  but as luck had it some unpulled bulbs regrew and yielded a supply of hardnecks that’s still not quite yet gone.

I love the names of garlic – there’s a list poem in there.

True garlic lovers write about the properties of garlic – its shape, taste and texture – the way oenophiles speak of fine wine:

“Full bodied flavor with a moderate bite”, “pleasing rich flavor”, “excellent for braiding”, tight delicate cloves”,”strong raw garlic flavor but not unpleasant”, “mellow tasting with no sharp aftertaste”, “light-colored wrappers”, “large cream-colored cloves”, “a mild initial tingle”, “very enriching taste experience but not one to burn your tongue”. “good for baking”, “adds depth to dishes”,  “flavor lingers and sweetens in your mouth and ends with a nutty flavor “, “deep and earthy not painfully hot”, “packs some heat but finishes mild and almost sweet”, “perfect for adding a distinctive flavor to a roast”, “caramelizes well”. And my favorite: “enough pungency to let you know you’re eating a real garlic but not being so hot as to be painful.”

So what kind of garlic did I plant? I planted a row each of Early Purple Italian; Silver Rose, Nookta Rose and Italian Late. From Seeds Now. If I see something interesting at the farmer’s market I might just buy a bulb or two and plant the cloves for one more row. After all – for the way I cook today – I can never have enough. Two whole bulbs for tonight’s meal alone.

Here’s William Stafford:

Ode to Garlic

Sudden, it comes for you
in the cave of yourself where you know
and are lifted by important events.

Say you are dining and it happens: 
Soaring like an eagle, you are
pierced by a message from the midst of life: 

Memory – what holds the days together – touches 
your tongue. It is from deep in the earth
and it reaches out kindly, saying, “Hello Old Friend.” 

It makes alike, all offspring of powerful
forces, part of one great embrace of democracy, 
united across every boundary. 

You walk out generously, giving it back
in a graceful wave, what you’ve been given.
Like a child, you breathe on the world, and it shines.

 William Stafford

Featured image: Eliot Hodgkin, Garlic No. 2, 1958


  1. Oh, garlic! My salvation as a student when I was beset by sinusitis. My occasional consumption of raw cloves did not make me popular. I don’t do that any more, but my love is more intense – though not enough to know of all the different varieties you list. Coming up for the sopa de ajo season (though I won’t be adding the pancetta any more – pork products are out since I watched Okja). Have you visited the Stinking Rose restaurant in San Francisco (‘we flavour our garlic with food’)? Love the Eliot Hodgkin – sometimes you need an artist’s eye to see the beauty.
    David Nice´s last blog post ..The Estonian Wolf Hall

  2. I’ve become a real fan of Eliot Hodgkin. He wrote: “I like to show the beauty of things that no one looks at twice.” Never been to The Stinking Rose restaurant but have enjoyed Sujata Bhatt’s poems in her garlic loving book of that name. Walking around with a clove in your nostril makes you the garlic winner of the week! In WW2 garlic was known as the “Russian penicillin”.

    • No, I didn’t stick a clove up my nose! I just ate them raw. Still euuch. Garlic and even onions were unknown, I think, to my parents when I was growing up. Remarkable to think that two basics of cooking were missing (not to mention olive oil and chilli).

      With that phrase Eliot Hodgkin is the man for me – been thinking and reading about the essence of things quite a lot recently.
      David Nice´s last blog post ..Czech ossuary interlude

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