In a world filled with cinnamon, saffron, and cardamom, garlic is… more provincial. As Don Quixote affirmed, “Don’t eat garlic or onions, so people won’t be able to tell your low birth by the way you smell.” Evidently, this knight’s chivalric code embodied diet as well as court manners. And indeed, garlic is so widespread that many of its variants grow as weeds all across America. But this “wild garlic” is a misnomer. While part of the allium family—which also includes leeks and onions—it is not considered a “true garlic”. In fact, the garlic bought in a grocery store does not actually grow wild anywhere. Only its closest relatives are found only in the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan. But these, again, are only domesticated garlic’s closest relations. Garlic has no place of origin, no native country. And in response, garlic has been adopted by every country it meets.
Though garlic’s native country is still out for debate, there is hard evidence that the bulbs were first domesticated in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenia, and Northern Iraq. From there, the earliest records of garlic come from Mesopotamia. Dated from 1600–1700 BCE, stone tablets list a recipe for combining “karsu” (leek) and “hazanu” (garlic), pounding and straining them into a kind of spread to be added to other dishes. Other cooks in Babylon and Byzantium also require the chopping or mashing of the bulb in order to release more flavor, and Emperor Nero is credited for inventing aioli, a pungent sauce made from garlic and olive oil.
From the Mediterranean, garlic spread through established trade routes. Egyptians, as they did with most spices, used garlic in mummification rituals.
Specifically, they would stuff onions into the body cavity and then use garlic for embalming. There’s speculation that this was done to simulate the breath of the body. Though, it’s likely the Egyptians recognized that both were good at covering up the smell of corpses. Garlic also returned back east: China receiving the crop from central Asian traders; Japan most likely introduced through Korea, where it had already been adopted as a native crop for years. And when the Spanish introduced the plant to North and South America, domesticated garlic finally conquering the last of the world.
Both native and immigrant Americans took to garlic with aplomb. Latin American dishes use the plant generously. Puritan-settled provinces took longer to embrace the flavor. But eventually garlic’s reputation as a “poor man’s treacle” was overcome in light of its culinary benefits. Today, much of the global crop is grown in countries that once disdained the plant–China, India, and right here in California. And with industrialization and globalization, garlic remains cheap, accessible, and available to nearly every cook on the planet.