By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
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By Samantha Alviani
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By Nate Hemmert
Six years ago, Karen had a small vegetable garden and sold a few products at the market. She heard about a garlic farmer in Oregon, called him, and soon received four or five types of garlic by mail. "They did really well," she says. "I was hooked."
She grew fascinated with investigating, and then growing, some of the hundreds of garlics available. Garlic is a very vigorous crop and relatively pest-free; generally, only a plague of grasshoppers or a bad hailstorm fazes it. This summer, the big fear is drought. Karen has well water, but she's seen the level dropping. "We need a good snowy winter," she says.
Garlic cloves need to go into well-prepared ground -- adequate moisture, medium fertility --with the pointy end up. Karen plants by hand in October and November; she's able to relax a little after Thanksgiving. In the spring, she puts in her drip lines. Weeks of intensive weeding follow. "I could weed around the clock and never have it look weeded," she says ruefully.
Garlic propagates by putting out bulbils at the end of a long, curling stem. Allowed to stand, these stems would siphon off nutrition from the bulb, so in June Karen snips them off. Some she sells: They make a wonderful soup. To harvest, she loosens the soil with a spade and lifts out the plants. The stems are then braided together, and the garlic hung up to dry for two or three weeks.
A short, dark-haired woman walks down the street meditatively bouncing a huge red exercise ball. A mother and daughter have stopped at the stand. "Pick one out," says the mother. She turns to Karen: "We're going to do stir-fry."
The two primary kinds of garlic are hardneck, which has a woody central stem, and softneck. With the exception of her Inchelium Red, all of Karen's garlics are hardneck, because she believes these have a richer, fuller flavor. But softnecks are bigger, she says, and often "people want the biggest."
Although used in almost every cuisine, ancient and modern -- Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Mediterranean -- garlic was conspicuously absent from the mainstream American diet in the early decades of the twentieth century. Associated with immigrant cultures, it was considered peasant food -- smelly and vulgar. Do-gooders did their best to wean immigrants from garlic salami; magazines and cookbooks extolled the virtues of bland, from-the-can cooking, seasoned only with salt and pepper. Then came the hippies, with their interest in natural food and eating for health, followed by the gourmet movement in California that extolled the flavor as well as the virtuousness of organic, local produce. By the 1970s, garlic was trendy.
A girl who looks about eighteen has a question: "If I was gonna, like, sauté it and put it in a tomato sauce or something?" she says.
Karen says she likes the German Extra Hardy for spaghetti; she chops the garlic and adds it just as the sauce is through cooking. She and her husband also eat thin slices of raw garlic dipped in olive oil on crackers every night.
One of the reasons for garlic's versatility is the way the taste changes when it's cooked, from bitey to mellow and nutty. I like to simmer cloves in milk to add to mashed potatoes, mince them raw into vinaigrettes (although you want to strain before storing, so as not to breed bacteria), sauté them with chopped onions as the base for just about any soup or stew, cook them with mushrooms to serve over toast. If you want a garlic taste with no garlic fragments, you can bruise a clove with your knife, saute it in oil, then fish it out before proceeding with the recipe. You can also drop an entire head -- unpeeled -- into a stock or stew. You can combine a couple of these methods for one dish, imparting layers of garlic flavor.
There's no real explanation for the myth that garlic repels vampires, but somehow it strikes me as right. If vampires represent everything meager, evil and life-denying, then garlic --which goes with companionship, dance, sex, robust health and terrific eating -- is certainly their natural enemy.