How Garlic Got Its Groove Back

This is just a sample of the great stories coming in our March Gardening Digest. How did Canadian garlic change from a reviled smelly flavour to a much-embraced culinary and medicinal treasure? And how did it arrive on these shores from a remote location in Central Asia? The answers may surprise you. By Peter McClusky […]

This is just a sample of the great stories coming in our March Gardening Digest.

How did Canadian garlic change from a reviled smelly flavour to a much-embraced culinary and medicinal treasure? And how did it arrive on these shores from a remote location in Central Asia? The answers may surprise you.

By Peter McClusky

Garlic has gone in and out of favour many times in history. Victorian writer John Ruskin called it a “strong class barrier”—good for labourers, but not suitable for a decent kitchen. Ruskin’s observation reflected 19th-century English attitudes. Garlic was used mostly for medicinal purposes. For example, Worcestershire sauce, of which garlic is a key ingredient, was promoted as a health tonic.

Certain flavours are strongly tied to particular cultures, but not always favourably. The flavours and aromas of curry spices, for instance, are traditionally associated with all of South Asian culture. But garlic often signifies groups outside the mainstream, as well. In Japan, the indigenous Ainu people were looked down upon, and their consumption of kitopiro (wild garlic) was a symbol of their perceived inferiority to the dominant Japanese culture. In North America, garlic has received a mixed reaction. The journals of early explorers record aboriginals being repulsed by the pong of garlic breath and body odour emanating from European explorers and missionaries. By the 19th and early 20th centuries, garlic became associated with non-British immigrants. Such negative associations were disseminated in cartoons, advertisements and Hollywood movies. One shockingly bigoted cartoon, published in 1910, was titled “A Wop.” It depicted a working-class Italian man shining the shoe of a rich Anglo in a bowler hat, with this caption:

“A pound of spaghett’ and a red-a bandan’
A stilet’ and a corduroy suit;
Add garlic wat make for him stronga da mus’
And a talent for black-a da boot!”

How did Allium sativum get its groove back after centuries of being alternately reviled and loved? And how did it become so popular in so many places? To understand why, first you need to know the geography of its origins and its adaptability to growing conditions around the world.

Author Ron Engeland describes garlic’s origin—the lands surrounding the Tien Shan Mountains of Central Asia—as the Garlic Crescent. This area was also the epicentre of the marauding and trading crossroads of ancient Eurasia. Many routes, including the legendary Silk Road, twisted along the valleys and mountain passes of the Garlic Crescent. Important trading centres (such as the Kashgar market in Xinjiang, China, one of the longest-running markets in the world) were located near the Garlic Crescent. Traders and pilgrims moved with relative ease between markets in Asia, India, the Levant, southern Europe and northern Africa, spreading information and goods, including garlic, along the way.

Geography played a role in its spread across Eurasia. But adaptability was also crucial: garlic can grow almost anywhere. Thanks to its hardy nature, almost everywhere garlic was traded, it was also planted. Perhaps that’s why it was never considered as valuable as spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, caccia and pepper. The supply and price of these spices could be controlled, either by keeping their source a secret or because they could not be replanted easily. Not so with garlic—the plant thrived in a relatively wide range of soil conditions and climates, including fields and gardens across Canada.

These two factors—its geographic origin and hardy nature—brought garlic into the cooking pots of working-class families around the world. Toronto chef Curt Hospidales remembers growing up poor in Trinidad, where they sometimes had to make do without meat. “We used garlic to replace the fish or meat flavour,” he says. “The method was to almost burn the garlic.” The resulting taste is like a reduced beef stock. “Garlic cooked this way was the meat in the pot,” recalls Hospidales. (Check out for his Provision Rosetta Style recipe.)

In Canada, it was garlic’s association with foreigners that initially limited its inclusion in mainstream “Anglo” cooking. Ironically, it was that same foreign influence that ultimately helped secure garlic’s status. Immigrants from Asia and eastern and southern Europe brought their own garlic bulbs with them to plant. Carrying seeds to a new home is a practice that dates back to ancient times. It is how garlic spread, via trade and migration, from its origins in the Garlic Crescent.

But Anglos ruled in 19th- and early 20th-century Canada. The more British you seemed, the higher your status, while “un-British” types were perceived as lower class. With few exceptions, garlic was meted out in tiny quantities, as if it possessed supernatural powers. Eat too much of it, and you might suffer dire consequences. Ukrainian immigrants came to Canada from a land with a history of famine and starvation. It was a survival strategy to bring seeds, including garlic, but eating it went against the Anglo-Canadian norm. Helena Moroz, a resident at the Ukrainian Seniors’ Centre in Sudbury, Ontario, explains: “We were associated with the ethnic populations. Until well past World War II, garlic eaters ‘knew what we were.’ No self-respecting Anglo would participate.” That brought alienation and feelings of being the “other.”

Changes in Canadian immigration policies, especially during Pierre Trudeau’s reign, profoundly affected the country’s dominant religious and cultural practices, as well as its media portrayals. With that came great changes regarding how garlic was perceived. A quiet revolution was slowly brewing as Canadian non-British immigrants and their descendants changed the way Canadians cooked at home. Each bulb planted on Canadian soil and each new dish introduced to Canadian palates helped secure garlic’s place in Canadian culture.

One of these food champions was Anne Sorrenti, a third-generation Canadian of German-Italian ancestry. By the time she was eight years old, Anne knew her way around a kitchen and had achieved a remarkable level of competence, cooking simple but delicious dishes like Pasta Aglio e Oglio. “Growing up, our home was an open house in the neighbourhood, with kids coming over all the time to eat dinner,” says Anne. “We didn’t change things up: we cooked the way we cooked for ourselves, including garlic, and they loved it. Now, 30 years later, my son, Alexander, cooks for his friends after school.”

For some people, garlic still had an undesirable image. Torontonian Marie Klassen tells about one stalwart: her own mother. It would take a health-food craze to bring her around. Marie’s mother regarded garlic as something undesirable—something used by the “lower class.” If you used garlic, you might become like “them.”

“Garlic was connected to poverty,” explains Klassen. “And even though my mother’s family was also poor, they were not immigrant poor. They were poor but proud, poor but educated, poor but Baptist, poor but unaccented English speaking. There was no way they were going to have fingers that smelled like garlic. Heavily and luxuriously flavoured food was somehow decadent and thereby un-Christian, and rather provocative as well. Pleasure was not to be had! Who really knew where garlic could lead?”

Happily, healthy, freshly cooked food and stir-fries caught the attention of Marie’s mother, who was particularly interested in cooking with a Chinese wok. But some of the recipes called for garlic, and there lay the dilemma. Garlic was meant for low-class heathens. What could she do? She needed fresh garlic to make her stir-fries delicious. She soon had an epiphany. It wasn’t long before Marie’s mother was growing garlic in her own garden.

Attitudes to garlic in restaurants were equally representative of the garlic love-hate conundrum. Winston’s Restaurant, named in honour of Winston Churchill and Anglo cuisine, and, for a time, one of the most prestigious restaurants in North America, remained true to its name by serving food that Anglo-Torontonians would like. In 1966, Italian-Canadian John Arena came on board as its new owner and manager, keeping the traditions going, including a ban on the use of garlic…with one exception. One day in 1988, Winston’s chef Frank Staheli served Shrimp with Garlic. The patron turned up his nose and sent it back. Chastened, John continued with his garlic-free menu, relying instead on savoury herbs like rosemary and thyme. But while garlic was banned at Winston’s, John grew it for his personal use and to give away to friends and family. To this day, he grows about 500 plants a year from bulbs he brought from a market in Italy many years ago.

Garlic is now much less likely to be hidden, disguised, consumed in tiny doses or, worst of all, associated in a negative way with a particular culture. Canadian-grown garlic is available across Canada, at farmers’ markets, garlic festivals and in limited quantities at some supermarkets. It is front and centre in many dishes, including some surprisingly delicious desserts, such as Garlic Brittle. CBC Radio host Matt Galloway puts it best: “I would hazard to guess that if you look at the meals I eat, like, dinner over seven days, maybe five of seven start with garlic in a pan. It is one of those magic ingredients. I love garlic.”

Peter McClusky

Peter McClusky

Peter has a passion for conceiving and developing ideas that promote the importance of local agriculture. His expertise includes sales and marketing, segmentation analysis, event development, community relations, volunteer recruitment, and contract negotiation. His interests cover garlic growing, photography, cooking and creating recipes; and writing. His book, Ontario Garlic: The Story from Farm to Festival (2015, History Press) is a social, scientific and historical account of the journey of allium sativum from Central Asia to Ontario.

Posted on Monday, February 15th, 2016
Filed under Food

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