A Brief History of Garlic
Garlic is one of the most popular ingredients in the world; and yet, few of the culinary world’s most popular food items have the mystique of garlic. This versatile plant, long considered a superfood for its distinct flavor, but also it’s perceived healing power, and occasional appearance in folklore (hello, Dracula!), is everywhere and it’s popularity continues to increase!
Roman gladiators ate garlic before battle. Greek Olympians ate garlic for endurance and strength. Ancient doctors around the world prescribed garlic for ailments. Even the much celebrated scientist Louis Pasteur once considered garlic a potential solution for killing bacteria.
But, for all of garlic’s storied history, where did it come from? How many kinds of garlic are there? How long has garlic been used in cooking? Keep reading to learn more about garlic’s intriguing history…
Let’s start with the basics. How Many Kinds of Garlic Are There?
Roughly 700 species of garlic exist today. Of those, garlic falls into two categories: hardneck and softneck. The hardneck species typically produces fewer, but more robust cloves. It also produces a garlic scape, which is the edible flower stem of the plant. Hardneck garlic is more likely to be grown in cooler climates. Softneck garlic, on the other hand, is more adaptable to mild and warm climates. Softneck garlic matures quickly and is also better for storing. You’re more likely to see softneck garlic in your local grocery store.
Where does garlic come from?
Garlic is an ancient crop. Evidence suggests that garlic was used as long as 5000 years ago in Egypt and India. When the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh King Tutankhamun was excavated in 1922, cloves of garlic were even discovered amongst his valuable treasures. It’s unclear if this garlic was meant to protect the king, or if it was accidentally left by a laborer in the construction of the tomb.
Texts from early Chinese history show that garlic was widely used in the country as early as 2000 BC. Garlic was prized in China for its culinary uses, its effectiveness as a food preservative, and for its medicinal properties.
Historically, wild garlic grew across Asia, India, Egypt and as far west as Ukraine. Today, that range is substantially smaller. Central Asia is the only place in the world where wild garlic grows without the help of human cultivation.
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that garlic arrived in Europe, courtesy of Roman invaders. Despite its use in medicine at the time, Europe’s ruling classes were hesitant to embrace garlic as food because of its association with the labor classes (slave labor in Egypt, lower castes in India, and field workers in Europe). It wasn’t until the Renaissance (14th century - 17th century), that the ruling classes in Europe began widely using garlic in cooking. King Henry IV of France was even famously baptized in a mixture of water and garlic to protect him from evil spirits and future afflictions.
How did garlic become so popular? What was garlic used for?
The garlic plant is resilient. It grows almost anywhere, stores for long periods of time, and is susceptible to few pests or diseases. Not to mention the fact that many cultures find garlic absolutely delicious! Part of garlic’s popularity since it was discovered thousands of years ago can be attributed to its many social uses: culinary, medicinal, and folkloric.
Garlic was a popular prescription among ancient physicians. Hippocrates, one history's most prominent medical figures, and for which the Hippocratic Oath is named, prescribed garlic for a variety of ailments including: pulmonary ailments, abdominal issues, and as a cleansing agent. Pliny the Elder, a respected Roman thinker, was keen to prescribe garlic to fight infections and protect against toxins.
In Eastern medicine, garlic was used to aid digestion, resolve respiratory ailments, fight fatigue - even combat depression. And, in popular folklore, garlic was used to ward off evil spirits and protect people and homes from vampires and werewolves. It’s powers were believed to be so powerful that it was hung on windows, over doors, and rubbed in chimneys and keyholes - anywhere it was thought evil could enter a home.
When did garlic arrive in North America?
While a close cousin of garlic has grown in North America for hundreds of years, garlic as the culinary staple we know now, didn’t arrive in North America until the 17th century. French, Spanish, and Portuguese explorers are credited with introducing garlic to North America.
Several hundred years passed before garlic cultivation dramatically increased. The arrival of immigrants in the 1920’s from Poland, Germany and Italy, among other places, created a demand for what is now a kitchen essential.
Today, California is the leading producer of garlic in the United States, with Gilroy, California now dubbed the garlic capital of the United States.