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Karen Beeman is tending her WeeBee Farms stand at the Boulder Farmers' Market on a Saturday morning. A band with alternating dried flowers and garlic heads adorns her hat. It's around 11 a.m.; she's already been here three hours, having gotten up at 5:45 to load up her boxes.
"These are good for cooking; these on top are nice roasted; these others are good for eating raw -- like in salads," her assistant tells a customer, pointing to boxes of garlic. It's a litany that will be repeated often in the course of the day.
A steady stream of people flows by the stand: an elderly man with a little dog, a pretty, longhaired woman eating a peach. Everyone's smiling -- not something you generally see at the supermarket. But a few of the people pausing by the WeeBee stand look puzzled, too. They're drawn to the garlic but thrown by the half-dozen varieties that Karen offers (augmented by a box filled with net bags containing six more kinds). You can see what they're thinking: Is garlic one of those trendy things like balsamic vinegar, cold-pressed olive oil, costly mineral-rich salts? Does it really make a difference what kind of garlic you toss into a stew? Is there one special variety that all the cognoscenti are buying, and will I be branded as a culinary dolt if I select the wrong head?
"We don't know the difference," confides one woman. "We just want it for spaghetti."
But Karen wears her garlic passion lightly. "Hi," she greets almost every customer. "You want some garlic advice? Or would you like to give me any?"
This is as it should be, garlic being the most democratic of foodstuffs: known to humankind for four or five thousand years; repeller of vampires; rumored to heal all kinds of bodily ills, including asthma, ulcers, digestive problems, cancer and gangrene; equally at home with the mouth-filling robustness of red meat and plain old vegetables and rice. Garlic can improve the taste of almost everything. Think salads, roasts, sauces like hummus, pesto and aioli; think lamb and chicken, fish and pork.
Some Farmers' Market shoppers are old hands with garlic. Joan Brett, owner of the Cooking School of the Rockies, sweeps a few heads into her bag, compliments Karen on her hat, pays and moves on. A couple stop to say that the garlic Karen sold them last year is growing nicely in their garden, and it seems to particularly like its bed near the roses. Not remotely territorial, Karen encourages other people to grow their own garlic; she even hands out instruction sheets. And then there's the man who pauses to call out, "Where are they?"
"Soon," Karen responds. She sells a few other items besides garlic, such as flowers, xeriscape plants earlier in the year and a few much-anticipated jars of honey in the fall. She knows this man is waiting for her first lemon cucumbers, still a couple of weeks away.
"What's good for roasting?" a woman wants to know. "Chicago," says the assistant. The woman examines a head, says she'd like one with larger cloves. None of Karen's garlic heads are particularly big, probably because they're grown in Colorado. Garlic varies in size and flavor not only by variety but by location. Sun, soil, water, temperature and neighboring vegetation all make a difference.
Later, I'll sit down at the living-room table for a taste test. A former marketer, Karen has devised a simple and effective means for identifying different kinds of garlic. Each head is marked at the tip with a color marker; an accompanying cheat-sheet explains the code. Given my unschooled palate and the impossibility of tasting too much garlic at one sitting, I can only make out the most obvious differences. Some types are hotter, some milder. Sometimes the heat comes on strong, then modulates into a pleasant warmth; with other varieties, the heat takes a few seconds to arrive. There are garlics that seem a little sweeter, others that have a fuller, richer taste. The names alone are wonderful: Brown Tempest, Inchelium Red, Persian Star, Rose de Lautrec, Dukanskij and Red Toch.
Clearly, it will take some months of cooking and sampling to develop favorites and decide which garlic most suits which dish. But it's not really necessary to obsess about this. Any garlic you buy from a local grower is bound to taste better -- fresher, more potent -- than the California Early bred for supermarkets. If you stock up, these gems will last until December, some until February. Then you'll only have to endure the over-the-hill commercial garlics for a few months before the harvest begins again in July.
Some of the shoppers moving past the stand hold bags of produce. These are the folks who ask vendors probing questions about freshness, ripeness and the cost of a flat of peaches. Others wander, nursing smoothies or coffee drinks and periodically clustering in chatty little groups -- the latte contingent. The farmers welcome all customers, of course, although they've been known to get a little testy when three or four people holding bicycles stop to chat in front of their stalls, blocking access. And Karen remembers one man holding up a line of garlic seekers while he described every variety she had to someone on his cell phone.