A Whiff of Garlic
In the case of garlic, which has long been touted as a panacea and superfood, folk wisdom and science coincide more closely all the time. The “stinking rose” was a cure-all for the ancient Egyptians, was thought to increase strength in Greek athletes and virility in Roman lovers and, in medieval Europe, allegedly repelled mosquitoes and vampires. Now alternative medicine has folks reaching for garlic supplements to prevent everything from heart disease to cancer.
When it comes to garlic, ancient and folk wisdom have been spot-on. For centuries Europeans used it to ward off digestive problems, heat stroke and plagues. Recent medical evidence suggests garlic does boost the immune system, helping us prevent the common cold or get rid of it faster, through its potent, if smelly, antioxidant compound allicin. As for more serious ailments, garlic may have promising applications in cancer prevention, especially for gastric and colon cancers.
But we have known this all along. Some of the earliest recorded medical advice prescribes garlic, with particular reference to the heart. Most striking is the ancient Roman precept that garlic “cleans” the arteries. We now know, based on modern scientific testing, that garlic reduces plaque formation in blood vessels, lowering blood pressure while slowing down arteriosclerosis, the hardening of the arteries. Garlic increases antioxidant levels, inhibits some bad enzymes and acts as a blood thinner, too, all good for the old ticker. Although the early Romans’ instinct about garlic was right, it’s worth pointing out that they were clueless about blood circulation and thought arteries were more like internal air ducts.
Garlic made its way west from China to ancient Egypt, which became one of the first regions to farm it as an agricultural product and where it became woven into the fabric of life. Without garlic, the pyramids might never have been built; it was used as currency to buy the slaves who built them, as well as an energy booster to refuel the workforce. It was also considered a remedy for insect infestations.
The world’s oldest extant medical document, the Egyptian Codex Ebers, which dates to 1500 B.C., indicates that healers of the era thought garlic cured everything from abnormal growths to heart disease. This makes garlic one of the world’s first plants to be prescribed for its healing properties. Although it was too late for young King Tut to use it to stave off whatever caused his premature death, he was nonetheless buried with garlic—both real cloves and clay models of the bulbs. Some suspect this was an early instance of garlic being used as an apotropaic, something that magically wards off evil.
The Mediterranean diet—low in saturated fat and rich in fruits and vegetables—is now fairly well established as contributing to human health, even if it’s unclear whether the relationship is causal or merely correlational. In other words, genetic or environmental factors could also be involved in the generally longer, healthier lives, and particularly the cardiovascular wellness, of Southern Europeans, Middle Easterners and North Africans.
But if the Mediterranean diet is responsible, a certain irony is involved in so many mainstream Americans finally adopting it and looking to it for answers. Once-suspicious practices like the heavy use of garlic and other foreign ingredients used to be the emblem of all that was “uncivilized” about Italian American immigrants. Next to the notion that Italians had uncontrollably violent emotions, the smelly, oily, garlic-and-fish-heavy diet was one of the most recognizable symbols of the group’s supposedly lower position on the evolutionary ladder. The stereotype endured well after the major wave of Italian immigration, from 1880 to 1920. In Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, for example, vindictive banker Henry Potter criticizes hero George Bailey’s habit of making loans to Italian Americans as “playing nursemaid to a bunch of garlic eaters.”
Garlic is one of those rare fresh foods with a very long shelf life. Whole bulbs last months, and even individual cloves are often good for more than a week. Its durability is said to partly explain the etymology of sugo alla puttanesca (“whore’s sauce”), a Neapolitan pasta dressing of tomatoes, capers, olives, onions and lots of garlic. Italian prostitutes apparently didn’t have a lot of time to spend cooking or doing the daily marketing. Since it doesn’t require a long simmering time, sugo alla puttanesca can be made quickly from ingredients likely to be on hand—such as garlic.
Sandro Petti, a restaurant owner on the southern Italian island of Ischia, would have disagreed with this origin story, since he claimed to have invented the sauce one night in the 1950s when he faced a lingering group of hungry friends and a dwindling pantry. They asked him to throw together any old puttanata (“crap” or “bullshit”), which he did. It was a hit. But when he put it on his menu, he called it puttanesca, presumably because “crap sauce” sounded unappetizing. “Whore’s sauce,” however, is apparently a perfectly respectable dish.
The enduring story of garlicky sugo alla puttanesca’s invention by hurried Italian prostitutes reveals something about our deeply entrenched ideas of fiery, passionate Latin women of loose morals. For North Americans, there have typically been two main types of Italian women—the matriarch and the spicy, erotic goddess—and food helps define both. World War II was partially responsible for these stereotypes becoming further entrenched, since American troops penetrating the south of Italy were met by impoverished women who had turned to prostitution by the time the Yanks arrived.
Another unfortunate ethnic trope that emerged from WWII was of “unclean” Southern Europeans reeking of garlic. As displaced persons sought refuge in the United States during and after the war, middle-class reformers hoped to make them over in their own image by introducing them to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant social conventions and cooking techniques. As we know, however, the majority of immigrants held to their traditional foodways and, over the years, introduced them to their new compatriots (a process that, happily, continues today). In time Neapolitan pizza and spaghetti (topped with sauces like puttanesca) have become almost as American as apple pie.
Before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight, vampires weren’t West Coast suburbanites or rural teenagers. They were irredeemably foreign. This contributed to the terror Bram Stoker’s Dracula held for British readers in 1897. On the verge of losing world dominance, the British were growing fearful of their empire striking back. Stoker’s novel, often included in the “invasion literature” genre (with H.G. Wells’s 1898 War of the Worlds), built on Slavic myths to create an ethnic Transylvanian (i.e., Romanian) origin for the title character that capitalized on anxiety about the westward flow of Eastern European immigrants.
When German director F.W. Murnau adapted Dracula into his dark 1922 film Nosferatu, vampire Count Orlok, with his hooked nose, haunted eyes and heavy brows, stereotypically symbolized the Jewish foreign “other” that allegedly threatened Europe. In the Depression-era U.S., the menacing vampire in 1931’s Universal Studios Dracula—played by heavy-accented Hungarian Bela Lugosi—was also unmistakably foreign, foregrounding Dracula’s ethnic identity and coinciding with hostility toward immigrants who might take Americans’ jobs. Only recently have vampires ceased being portrayed as aristocratic foreigners with designs on innocent women. Today’s more psychologized vampires generally symbolize a danger from within (though the designs are still there).
Romanian folklore introduced garlic to the vampire myth, with some scholars theorizing the association stems from folk-medicine beliefs that garlic acts as a mosquito repellent. But garlic’s apotropaic (evil-repelling) powers became mainstream thanks to Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which contains multiple references to garlic being used to protect people and homes in Transylvania. Its most striking use is on victim Lucy Westenra’s corpse, which vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing decapitates. He then fills her mouth with garlic to end the undead phase of her otherwise promising young life. Ever since, garlic has been one of the most popular apotropaics, with specific application to vampires.
But one question persists: Does garlic work on real vampires, or is this solution just the nonsense of vampire fiction? In 1994 Norwegian researchers set out to find the answer. A study was done on blood-sucking leeches, which were subbed in for vampires, since presumably there weren’t enough undead subjects available to provide a statistically significant sample. But if the leeches and vampires have a similar taste for hemoglobin, the results are alarming. Garlic attracted leeches and in this case may actually do us more harm than good!