Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Stamp out mouth-wash breath

Let's face it. Over the last 4,000 years, garlic has gotten a lot of bad press. The Romans passed laws limiting its use, Victorian England considered it "declasse," the Puritans used it as a form of punishment. In Gary, Ind., it is still illegal to take a street-car or go to the theatre within four hours of consuming garlic. In New York City, Volunteers of America give their Santa Clauses a list of "don't" which includes: "Don't lean on your chimney," "Don't overdo the 'ho, ho, ho,' bit," and "Don't eat garlic."

For centuries, this pungent bulb -- aromatic, ugly cousin of the Easter lily -- has been written off as a six-letter assault on the nostrils. Bearer of bad breath, garlic has been treated as a forbidden fruit by people of taste. "Don't go near them!They've eaten garlic," Aristophanes warns in one of his comedies. An old New York Yiddish maxim holds that: "Three nickels will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat." Au contraire,m a few months ago a Long Island college professor, bearing the breath of a bona fide garlic lover, was ordered off a bus by its driver.

About these ads

Fortunately, garlic thrives on controversy. It also thrives in California, where 90 percent of the nation's garlic is produced. So, in this age of rampant garlic prejudice, it is not surprising to find here a movement of insurgent "alliophiles" (garlic is horticulturally known as Allium sativumm ) growing right under our noses.

They call themselves "Lovers of the Stinking Rose," and rally to such battle cries as: "Please pass the garlic," "Variety is not the only spice of life," and "Garlic makes good scents." They distribute an underground newsletter, the Garlic Times (circulation 1,500), which disseminates such subversive but accurate (confirmed by America's Fresh Garlic Association) information as: Garlic has become the second most consumed spice -- after black pepper -- in the United States; two-thirds of the garlic sold inAmerica is dehydrated; and today, the nation is experiencing a garlic boom, producing 200 million pounds annually, six timesm the output of two decades ago. Lovers of the Stinking Rose (LSR), like many of California's revolutionary and sometimes revolting social movements , is headquartered in Berkeley, a political hotbed and culinary capital.

Each Bastille Day, LSR, along with other, nonaffiliated guardians of garlic, rendezvous at Chez Panisse, an elegant French restaurant at the heart of "Gourmet Gulch," a four-block stretch of Berkeley's Shattuck Avenue jammed with charcuteries, imported cheese shops, juice bars, and other epicurean establishments, specializing in chocolate truffles, fresh baguettes, pastries, and cucumber salads. The annual garlic gala at Chez Panisse is not simply "al pesto." It features whole baked garlic in olive oil; on average, each celebrant consumes a half-pound of the "stinking rose."

And if that were not enough, throughout the year, LSR members pilgrimage to America's first, and probably only, all-garlic restaurant, La Vieille Maison, in the Sierras. (La Vieille Maison, in the old gold-mining town of Truckee, Calif. , was once a boardinghouse used by Charlie Chaplin and his film crew while shooting "The Gold Rush.") Charles Robert, a famed French restaurateur, flavors all the entrees with fresh garlic, and serves wooden corcks of aioli (a French garlic mayonnaise) instead of butter. In the wintertime, Robert claims, his garlicked customers have no trouble getting to the head of lines at the nearby ski lifts.

Meanwhile, in Gilroy, Calif., the self-proclaimed "Garlic Capital of the World," garlic growers again took their cue from Arleux, France (which also happens to call itself "Garlic Capital of the World"), and this August held the Second Annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. Some 60,000 people flocked to this little farming community 80 miles south of San Francisco, and in two days consumed 900 pounds of fresh garlic and 6,000 loaves of garlic bread.

When the crowds weren't eating, they were singing garlic songs, swapping garlic seeds and recipes, buying garlic souvenirs (garlic pannants, key fobs, "collector's mugs," and "pet garlics"), and applauding Jeannette Arde, a local bank employee crowded Garlic Queen.

This garlicmania has not gone unrecorded. For the last four years, Les Blank , a San Francisco Bay Area cinematographer known to some as the "Cecil B. de Mille of ethnoanthropological films," and his assistant Maureen Gosling, have been documenting California's garlic happenings. Last spring, his 51-minute "Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers" had its debut at New York's Museum of Modern Art. It has since been sold to German National Television and featured at film festivals in Berlin, Venice, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.This film is screened through a revolutionary new process Blank calls "Aromaround."

About these ads

At the entrance to theaters showing his garlic film, moviegoers are handed several cloves of garlic which they peel, when instructed, midway in a Cuisinart , and sauteed on a hot plate in the theater. The fragrance is sytematically fanned through the audience, which is awarded fresh garlic bread after the showing. Blank's "Aromaround" manual assures users: "In a smaller theater, one toaster oven with 6 to 8 heads of garlic will do a nice job.

Much of the inspiration for the garlic festival, banquet, and film belongs to Lloyd J. Harris, founder of LSR. He is also the author of "The Book of Garlic," A 288-page paean to the stinking rose, which is now in its fifth printing. It has sold over 20,000 copies, and has been translated into French and Japanese. Harris justly describes himself as "garlic's brazen benefactor, whose contributions to the cause have been breathtaking."

Like a revisionist historian dusting off the tarnished reputation of a past president, Harris and his book cast favorable new light on the ancient bulb. According to his research, heavily garnished with folklore, garlic originated some 4,000 years ago in the Kirghiz region of Central Asia. The spice spread throughout the Mediterranean. Egyptian slaves refused to work without their daily ration of garlic, and King Tut had six cloves buried in his tomb, Harris tell us. Hungarians still use crushed garlic as suntan lotion.

Italian sculptors use it to harden weak spots in Carrara marble. Summer residents at Lake Placid use it to ward off black flies and mosquitoes. Garlic is a recommended cure for dandruff, boredom, and bad breath in dogs. (LSR member Tom Borthwick of San Diego reports that when he owned a dog kennel, "handlers often popped a clove of garlic into the mouths of dogs with bad breath.")

"The Book of Garlic," which New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne praises as "admirably researched and well written," assures us that this smelly perennial keeps you safe from vampires and will add that certain accent piquantm to everything from a sublime escargot to a can of dog food -- check the label. Harris reveals that Henry V was anointed with garlic at birth, and fresh garlic today is a seasoning preferred by celebrities from Princess Grace to Joe DiMaggio, from Woody Allen to Jackie Onassis.

Harris says, "It's become chic to reek," a trend confirmed by Town and Country, a magazine with a knack for discerning the whims of America's glitterati. It recently reported that garlic, once held in disdain by the jet set, is now back in favor at the nation's most exlusive dinner parties.

"Oddly enough, as garlic and other strong spices have shed their proletarian accents, proletarian food has gone and lost its spiciness . . . the mass of mankind rushes into fastfood dispensaries to munch bland little chunks of things seasoned, if at all, by ketchup. Under such conditions, it is no wonder that the garlic bud has become the darling of sophisticated taste buds."

Lloyd J. Harris translates the trend: "In this age of sophisticated culinary tastes, the lingering odor of garlic and onions on one's breath is a sign of cultivation."

I first caught wind of the cultivated Harris at Chez Panisse's Fifth Annual Garlic Festival. By the time I arrived, O. J. Simpson and the other distinguished garlic-lovers had polished off a meal of whole baked garlic on herb bread, tureens of fish soup with garlic and basil, charcoal-grilled chicken in an olive, garlic, orange, and almond sauce, a "Mesclun" salad with garlic and hard-cooked eggs, and two garlic fruit sherbets.

Harris was upstairs with the live fiddle music and dancing. He and the other experienced alliomaniacs were exuberantly eating and exhaling, while neophytes like me were, as they say in California, "blown away." When I felt Chez Panisse shortly after midnight, Harris was still wondering if chef-proprieter Alice Waters was going to serve chocolate-covered garlic cloves and how he would get an interview with Simpson for the next issue of the Garlic Times.

That night, Harris and I had agreed to meet later in a "more neutral setting, " and early one morning we converged on a Chicago-style delicatessen at the north end of "The Gulch." The deli takes pride in its authentic Jewish knishes, chopped liver, blintzes, and Kaiser rolls. Harris ordered a garlic bagel and cream cheese, I settled on a whole-wheat raisin bagel and cream cheese, and the conversation began.

Lloyd J. Harris is a beefy, droll fellow. He wears shirts that look like pajama tops and has a head of black curls. Lloyd J. is not his real name. He was born "John Harris" but adopted the pseudonym years ago while eating an apple pie on a train between New York and Chicago. The side of the pie-box read: "Lloyd J. Harris' Apple Pies." The name stuck.

In point of fact, Harris explains, his family's real name isn't even Harris, but Hrekovitch, the surname of his Jewish grandfather Sol, who, at the turn of the century, escaped from Poland, fought with the French Foreign Legion in what is now Vietnam, and arrived in San Francisco in 1904, two years before the earthquake. Hrekovitch opened a linen business and, like Many immigrants, Americanized his name. Hence, Harris.

Before writing "The Book of Garlic," Harris was an art student who dabbled in xero-graphic (copy machine) art and painted scenery, which he took into the Polaroid color-photo booths you see in airports and bus stations. He free-lanced to the Los Angeles Free Press and worked at gourmet establishments up and down Berkeley's "Gourmet Gulch," which at the time was only a gully.

In the early '70s, he unsuccessfully attempted to script a new Jewish cooking show for television he called "The Jewish Schef." In 1974, Harris divined that "the coast is clear for a garlic book, something simultaneously absurd and sublime." Shortly thereafter, he founded the Lovers of the Stinking Rose, which has grown to some 1,500 loyal members throughout the US and in France, England, Japan, Australia, Canada, Germany, and New Zealand.

Nanou Stark, a French-speaking under-graduate at the University of California at Berkeley, handles LSR membership and correspondence. "We've got everybody from professors and gourmet cooks to housewives in Ohio," Stark says, and confides over the phone: "Did you know that if you rub it on a friend's foot and wait an hour, you can smell it on his breath? If you can't, he's a vampire."

The benefits of LSR membership transcend the detection of vampires. For $14, each new member of the garlic club receives: "The Book of Garlic" (published by Harris's Panjandrum Books); a subscription to the Garlic Times; and discounts on items in the newsletter listed under "Mail Odor From The Garlic Press." They include "the ultimate garlic press" ($10), LSR T-shirts ($8), "Fight Mouthwash, Eat Garlic" bumper stickers ($1), as well as garlic-shaped amulets (sterling, $ 50; 18-karat gold, $375 postpaid). Harris guarantees a "full refund if you are attacked by a vampire while wearing the amulet!" In the next Garlic Times, LSR will begin offering an odorless garlic shampoo "for humans and dogs."

Belonging to the garlic fraternity means sharing the tribulations of fellow garlic-lovers. Letters flood LSR headquarters:

I felt that I have no choice but to join LSR after discovering that my girlfriend eats sandwiches of peanut butter and sliced raw garlic. Common sense would seem to dictate my eating garlic if only in self-defense.m

Paul Koeh, Albany, CAm

I only could afford to join LSR because I choose one most worthy organization to join with every 2nd paycheck. I'm ashamed to adv mit the 'lovers' won out over ACLU.m

K. Antanaitis, Detroit, MIm

I'm living out here in the scrub with my sheep dog, my radio, and the old guitar. . .. If you may know of some girl who may want to write to a bush bloke , I would like that very much. I am 28, 5'10" tall, red-haired, pretty solid, a good sense of humor, play a bit of guitar, and I eat a lot of garlic.m

Geoff Bartley, Tasmania, Australiam

Harris thrusts his knife toward my plate and asks, "Are you finished with your cream cheese?" As I watch him devouring his bagel and grinning at me from across the table, I wonder how seriously he takes his garlic. His answer: "When people ask me if I take garlic seriously, I answer 'no' to those who take me seriously, and 'yes' to those who don't. But the real question is not whether I take garlic seriously, but whether I take it. And the answer is 'yes, every chance I get.'"

In 1978, the mouthwash industry apparently didn't take Harris and his garlic club seriously enough. That year, Harris found at his doorstep a mail sample of a new mouthwash. The accompanying brochure claimed that one gargle of the stuff would "fight strong mouth odors, even garlic and onion, . . . worst of all odors." Harris immediately fired off an angry protest to the company, notifying it that the LSR membership would begin a national boycott of the new product.

"Garlic breath is garlic breathm , not bad breath," Harris complains. "Perhaps these companies are picking on garlic because America is in the midst of a garlic upsurge."

Amused, the mouthwash manufacturer flew Harris to New York for a televised debate with one of the company's chemists. At the climax of the confrontation, the chemist poured a bottle of the mouthwash into a beaker of garlic concentrate and handed the mixture to Harris, whom he expected to concede. Harris took one whiff, turned up his nose, exclaimed, "Whew! That smells like mouthwash breath!" and, on the air, declared his victory. (To those timid types who like garlic but not the lingering odor, Harris privately recommends chewing fresh basil or parsley, or sucking on a coffee bean.)

If Japanese technology has its way, this whole controversy over garlic's aroma may soon become moot. Three years ago, a Japanese rice farmer, Toshio Nakagawa, developed an odorless strain of garlic in his fields. It tastes like the real McCoy, but the smell doesn't hang around. The Mitsubishi Corporation, Japan's largest trading concern, is already making plans to market the new "White Nakagawa Number One."

When this news from Japan reached Harris in Berkeley, he lamented in the columns of the Garlic Times: "LSR is in a state of shock over these matters. Imagine, garlic binges with no fear! If this is just another step toward deodorization of our lives at the expense of robustness, then truth will out, LSR will throw its weight into the arena against the new-fangled odor-free garlic." He added: "There is a final consideration. Will there be new vampire epidemics now that garlic will no longer stink?"

Since 1974, when Harris first brought out "The Book of Garlic," his small publishing company has followed with such volumes as "Radical Vegetarianism," "Kitchen Cosmetics," "Nutrition Survival," as well as a book on mine and a biography of Yehudi Menuhin. When I spoke with Harris, he was en route to a hideaway cabin in Mendocino County where he planned to continue work on "Lilies of the Kitchen," the much-awaited sequel to his garlic book. Harris calls it an effort in "investigative gastro-journalism" to pay tribute to the less-notorious members of the lily family, such as the onion, leek, and shallot. He claims to have already spent countless hours ferreting factual tidbits from agricultural libraries and obscure seed catalogs.

"I look back now and see how easy it was to become a garlic fanatic in my younger, radical years," Harris says with a grin, waxing philosophical, and scrapes the last lump of cream cheese from my plate."Once you mature, you begin to see things in their entire context and are forced to become concerned with the interrelationships and roots of the entire garlic family."

On the other hand, once you probe the mysteries and marvels of garlic, there's no way otu, Harris confesses. "After all, it ism the philosopher's rose -- the more you eat the more you nosem ."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.