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?
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"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.
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.
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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.