Sunday, May 05, 2013

Garlic Smells

"Can I smell the pickles?" I used to ask when I was a small child and my father took me to a delicatessan. I only vaguely remember the deli, which we must have walked to (no car), but I remember the wooden pickle barrel, which was almost as tall as I was. The deli man would take off the barrel's lid, and I would put my nose near but not too near to the curing cucumbers and green tomatoes in greenish brine, and sniff -- garlic, dill, vinegar.

My father would ask for a half-sour pickle or pickled tomato and buy half a pound of corned beef, if my memory is right. The deli man knew which pickles had been in the barrel just the right amount of time. I think he and my father knew each other from some other time or place, but my memories are vague, except for the delicious smell from the pickles. Kosher-garlic-pickle smell is still noticeable in the blend of smells in a deli, along with the garlic from the pastrami.

Smell-resistant American culture in the past, like proper British culture, classified garlic as foreign and offensive, but Americans slowly got used to garlic as group after group of immigrants enjoyed it and then popularized it along with their cuisines. I guess garlic came in by a back door near the famous "golden door." Americans looked down on Italians at first, but soon learned to love pizza, spaghetti, and garlic bread, getting used to the cheesy, yeasty, herbal and garlicy aroma of Italian restaurants in the early 20th century.

Chinese restaurants became trendy in America several times, beginning, surprisingly, as early as the mid-19th century. Fresh garlic and ginger sauteed in hot oil are the now-familiar start of many stir-fried Chinese dishes, so the smell of garlic is definitely a component of the characteristic Chinese-restaurant aroma. Korean restaurants, which also use lots of garlic in strong-flavored dishes like kim chee, are growing in popularity now. Though I've never tried any of the famous foods from a Korean taco truck, I imagine a powerful aroma that's partly garlic and fermented cabbage and partly tortillas, maybe with a whiff of hot lard for frying as I would expect in a taqueria.

"The first thing you smell at the Huy Fong Foods factory in suburban Los Angeles is the overwhelming aroma of garlic, a key ingredient in the company’s signature product: Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce," wrote Caleb Hannan in "Sriracha Hot Sauce Catches Fire, Yet 'There's Only One Rooster,'" in Bloomberg Business week recently. "Last year, the company sold 20 million bottles." Originally part of Thai cuisine, sriracha sauce in America has become synonymous with the Huy Fong LA version and its rooster logo. The popularity of garlic-heavy Thai food and above all sriracha sauce is a recent thing in America.

Japanese cooking isn't known for garlic, but a Japanese friend told me that families there use garlic in cooking only on Friday and Saturday night to avoid offensive garlic breath when they go to work or to school on weekdays. Though not a traditional flavor in the type of sushi that's very popular here, garlic is used in raw beef dishes in Japan and in a few other foods. Similarly, garlic isn't a dominant flavor in the Indian food that Americans are accustomed to, but has its place in some regions. Maybe the garlic-flavored preparations from these cultures will reach American diners some day.

French cuisine dominated fine dining in America in the 19th and much of the 20th century. Garlic was a pretty muted element in French haute cuisine, and I suspect that even chefs who trained in France tended to avoid garlic aromas when adapting their cuisine to America or England. But maybe not completely -- consider this:
 "La Cuisine Pratique [a recipe collection from 1902 used at the cooking classes held at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris] occasionally contains stories about chefs. One, 'Le Secret de Francatelli,' discusses the salads he prepared during his tenure at the Reform Club in London. A customer commented on the wonderful aroma that wafted from the salad when it arrived at the table. The secret? Garlic, crushed in the chef's teeth while he tossed the salad. The smell of his breath helped create that indefinable aroma. The piece ends by saying that the customer thanked Francatelli profusely, but remarked that perhaps he would not admire the salads as much in the future." (from Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession by Amy B. Trubek, p. 28)
The smell of garlic has a complicated reputation. If you eat garlic, some people believe, mosquitos will avoid you; maybe this works. Italian mothers once burdened their children with necklaces of garlic. This made the children unpopular, but the mothers insisted because they thought the smell prevented colds or other diseases. In Eastern European folklore, garlic cloves and garlic breath or body odor functioned not only as an effective vampire repellant, but also as a charm against the evil eye and other malicious spirits or devils. (The Andaman Islanders that I wrote about aren't the only ones whose spirits can smell you. For lots more garlic superstitions and history, check this American Folklore page.)

Garlic can be loved or hated. If your mother ate garlic before you were born, you probably like it better than if she did not: garlic, in a prenatal diet, can be detected in the amniotic fluid, as can other types of flavor/aroma. The presence of garlic has an influence on "after-birth preference lasting into childhood. ... the neural system for the basic hedonic responses to taste, in terms of attraction or repulsion, is in the brain stem and is active in the newborn. The learning of these preferences in utero and their emotional expression are therefore incorporated into this hardwired system." (from Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why it Matters by Gordon M. Shepherd,  p. 234)

Photo from Wikimedia commons. This post also appears on my travel blog.

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