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Garlic is a member of the Alium family, which includes onions, leeks, shallots and chives.
It is related to the flowering Amaryllis — the name of which is derived from the ancient Latin word for garlic.
As a genus, garlic includes several hundred species, some of them native to most of North America. It is also native to central Asia and was introduced to the rest of the world by early immigrants.
It was first grown only in home gardens. In time, it escaped to become a wild plant that we find along roadsides and in vacant fields.
A wild form of garlic, meadow leeks, were gathered by many North American Indians. The most famous of these wild plants, the pungent wild ramp, is native to damp, dense woods from New England to Appalachia.
In areas of the Southeast, this small plant traditionally heralds the beginning of spring. Many people band together in gathering expeditions for their annual ramp festivals.
Ramp is usually described as a wonder in taste and a horror in odor, but it’s an excellent substitute for cultivated onions. It makes a good ingredient for the classic French onion soup, or it can be blended into an oil-and-vinegar dressing for a green salad.
A few plants of cultivated garlic are good additions to any kitchen garden.
According to legend, the world’s first strike of laborers was caused by a garlic shortage in ancient Egypt. When the pyramid builders learned that their usual daily garlic ration was to be reduced, they refused to do any more work. Garlic was that important.
Scientists today are beginning to understand why this was so. They have discovered a whole list of health-guarding garlic compounds, such as ajoene, diallyl sulfide, diallyl disulfide and diallyl trisulfide. It is thought these compounds may defend against cancer, heart attacks and more.
Garlic has been nicknamed “Russian penicillin,” thanks to its anti-infection powers against the bacteria that cause respiratory and digestive infections. Garlic kills bacteria, as well as virus and infectious fungi.
Studies have suggested that garlic has many health benefits and may improve high-blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and more.
Eating garlic can help raise the B6 levels in your diet. You could add it to other Vitamin B6-rich foods, such as mashed potatoes or marinara sauce.
Cooking can reduce the benefits of garlic somewhat, but you can get some of them back by crushing garlic cloves and then letting them stand for a few minutes before you cook them.
Garlic is a veritable treasure house of cancer protection. A study was made of 25,000 people in Italy and Switzerland, and researchers found that those who ate garlic regularly cut their risk of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, kidney and colon. Garlic contains compounds that can help stop cancer before it starts, so you could try to aim for more uses for the cloves and see what garlic can do for you.
If breathing problems are an unfortunate part of your life, it could be of benefit to eat more garlic. To sauté it in oil could help even more, because that produces vinyldithiins, a compound that opens up the air passages.
Alternately maligned and praised for its pungency, garlic was thought during the Middle Ages to keep vampires at bay. It has traditionally been valued since then for its ability to impart strength.
Roman athletes and the builders of the pyramids devoured tremendous quantities of garlic.
As the Israelites wandered through the Sinai in the 13th century B.C., they longed for the memorable food herb that they had loved in Egypt. The Talmud directs that many kinds of food are to be seasoned with garlic, and it was introduced into western Europe by the Crusaders.
There is said to be a tradition in the Orient that when Satan stepped out of the Garden of Eden after the fall of man, onions sprang up from the spot where he placed his right foot, and garlic sprang up from where he placed his left foot. This legend alludes to the magic powers once attributed to these vegetables. It is not meant to be an aspersion on them because of their odor, which is not at all objectionable to those in the Orient.
In Bohemia, garlic is fed to dogs, roosters and ganders in the belief that it will make them fearless and strong.
There are about 70 kinds of onion and garlic in the Holy Land region even today. It is no wonder the ancient Hebrews should have used them in many ways and developed a liking for them.
You might take your cue from those striking pyramid builders and eat more garlic. You can find fresh garlic bulbs in the supermarket. Each one contains up to 24 delectable cloves dedicated to keeping you healthy.
Garlic has come to our culinary attention again. You might even discuss this idea with your doctor, too. Happy eating!
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.