“And most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.” When Shakespeare wrote this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was not alone in his opinion. Garlic’s reputation cannot be excised from its distinctive odor. Sulfuric compounds (allicin) give garlic its strong smell. On one hand, this smell is appealing to cooks looking to make flavorful dishes. On the other hand, these same sulfur compounds also cause halitosis—the scientific name for “bad breath”. This stink is also why everyone from Roman priestesses to medieval kings have banned garlic-eaters.
Garlic’s smell has been controversial all throughout history. One of the earliest bureaus to ban garlic was the Roman sect of Cybele. It is unknown whether its priestesses banned the plant for unknown religious reasons or simply because they hated the stink. However, fellow Roman, Horace, had clear opinions on the matter. In 23 BCE, he published his Greek metres, one of which dedicates itself entirely to condemning garlic: “If any man, with impious hand, should ever / Strangle an aged parent, / Make him eat garlic, it’s deadlier than hemlock”. And despite Confucius lauding garlic’s health benefits, Chinese Buddhism later forbid the crop as one of the “five vegetables of strong odor.” Also banned were asafoetida (an Iranian condiment and pickling agent) as well as other alliums (the Chinese onion, shallots, and leeks).
And as time wore on, garlic still proved divisive. While Henri IV of France (a notorious philanderer and seducer) is said to have been baptised with a clove of garlic, other kings have not looked so favorably on the plant. King Alfonso of Castile banned garlic-eating knights from appearing in court—even speaking to other courtiers—for four weeks after ingestion. And while English monasteries often grew garlic in droves, protestant England (and later protestant American colonies) checked its use. (Perhaps due to its “sulphuric” odor.) And though garlic is occasionally called for in early American recipes, it wasn’t until the influx of 19th century immigrants that garlic again was considered a culinary staple.
And after all this time, garlic still has a bit of a smelly reputation. But that has not stopped it’s massive appeal. America, China, even India—who ostracized allium-eaters in the 6th century—are all now top producers of the plant. Its hardiness, its flexibility, and most of all, its taste were all worth a little halitosis, despite our ancestor’s early misgivings.