Garlic has a long history of use as a flavoring for food, a charm against evils and a medicinal panacea. Yet 15 years ago, Americans ate only about 1 ounce of garlic per person a year. Last year, thanks to immigrants and favorable medical reports, consumption was up to 1 1/4 pounds each year, reports the Fresh Garlic Association.
If you believe in the healing properties of garlic or just relish its pungent taste, you're in good company: Aristophanes, Hippocrates, Pliny, Virgil, Charlemagne, Pasteur and Gandhi all were garlic lovers.
Folklore includes tales of garlic's ability to repel vampires and insects. And folk wisdom has long touted the curative qualities of garlic. In the ancient world, garlic was thought to cure coughs as well as madness, and to work as an aphrodisiac.
In the Middle Ages, garlic-eating priests administered to victims of bubonic plague without coming down with it themselves. It is said the garlic repelled the fleas that carried the deadly disease.
The antibiotic and anti-fungal properties of garlic have been known for a long time. During World War I, for example, medics rubbed garlic paste on wounds to prevent infections, and surgeons sterilized instruments with garlic. And during World War II, it was dubbed "Russian penicillin," which was no news to Russians familiar with the old proverb: "Eat leeks in tide and garlic in May, and all the year after physicians may play."
Today, medical researchers are attempting to unravel the mystery of garlic, and recent scientific studies have begun to corroborate what herbalists have always claimed -- that garlic protects against cancer, cardiovascular disease and a host of less serious ailments. Not so long ago, the medical establishment scoffed at the garlic-health connection, but just how much attitudes have changed became clear when the first World Congress on the Health Significance of Garlic was held in Washington in 1990.
Laboratory experiments suggest that garlic helps to eliminate cancer-causing substances from cells and to strengthen the immune system. A National Cancer Institute study conducted in Linqu, China, showed that allium vegetables (garlic, onion, scallions, leeks, chives) appear to offer some protection against stomach cancer.
German studies demonstrated that daily garlic supplements reduced cholesterol levels and blood pressure. And other studies have revealed that garlic's anti-clotting effect is much like that of aspirin.
The active ingredient, researchers believe, is allicin, the sulfur compound that also gives off that familiar garlic smell.
There are, of course, folk remedies for garlic breath: chewing parsley, fennel, coffee beans or cardamom pods. But since the sulfur compound enters the bloodstream and comes into the mouth through the lungs, there's no hope for much more than a cover-up.
Or consider the motto of the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival: "Fight Mouthwash . . . Eat Garlic." Last September, about 4,000 people turned out for the second annual event (said to be the only East Coast festival), held in Saugerties, N.Y.
That attendance is nothing compared to the 135,000 who came out for California's Gilroy Garlic Festival, an annual three-day celebration of the garlic harvest every July.
Gilroy, a town 80 miles south of San Francisco, bills itself as the Garlic Capital of the World; when the wind is blowing, the aroma of garlic scents the air for miles around. California produces 90 percent of the garlic in the United States and most of it is grown within a 90-mile radius of Gilroy, according to Garlic Festival officials.
One highlight of the festival is the garlic-topping contest in which farmers compete to be the fastest at cutting the leaves and packing the garlic into bushels. Down Garlic Alley visitors can buy garlic mustard, mayonnaise, jelly, pasta sauce, barbecue sauce, cooking wine, bordelaise sauce and garlic-stuffed olives as well as garlic jewelry, clothing braids and wreaths.
But best of all is the opportunity to taste the garlicky food dished up by celebrity and local chefs, for the true brilliance of garlic, raw or cooked, is as a seasoning.
Spicy bits of raw garlic give a Caesar salad its bite. You can add chopped raw cloves to olive oil for cooking and salads, to butter that you use as a spread or a vegetable topping, to homemade mayonnaise for aioli dip to a rouille to serve with bourride and bouillabaisse, to basil to make pesto for pasta, or use it as a flavoring for soups.
Although ready-to-eat raw garlic preserved in oil is a supermarket staple, it can taste acrid. It's easy and better to make your own by chopping a peeled head, transferring it to a jar, adding oil to cover and storing the jar in the refrigerator for a few days.