Monday, September 28, 2009

The History of Garlic

Garlic is mentioned in texts from Central Asia thousands of years ago and is also mentioned in ancient Roman, Greek, Muslim, and Hebrew literature. It is one of the oldest documented examples of a plant designated for treatment of disease and maintenance of health.

In 2000 BC, Ancient Chinese medicine was using garlic to aid respiration, digestion, to treat depression. Garlic was also used as a preserving agent at this time, although currently preserving garlic is considered a danger to health, as it can easily become a host to botulism.

It was found inside Egyptian pyramids (and even in King Tutankhamen’s tomb, which dates back to around 1500 BC) as well as in Greek temples.

Ancient medical texts from Egypt, Greece, Rome and China all regard garlic as a medicine prescribed for strength. The earliest references to garlic in Egypt, indicate that the working class would consume garlic daily.

At this time in history- around 1500 BC- the authoritative medical text, the Codex Ebers, said to contain medicinal knowledge from before 3000 BC, prescribed garlic to a number of ailments, including malignant growths, circulation, general malaise and also to ward off insects and parasites.

In Ancient Crete garlic was also prescribed for strength. Bulbs of garlic were found in the temple of Knossos, home of Homer’s mythical King Minos. There is also evidence that Greek athletes would consume garlic prior to the Olympic games, believing it to be performance enhancing.

In Ancient Rome, garlic was fed to sailors and soldiers for the same enhancing purposes. The concept that garlic improves cardiovascular strength has origins in antiquity. Rome was largely influenced by Greek medicine, specifically Dioscorides, the leading medical authority. In a time that believed air was transported though the arteries and blood through veins, Dioscorides recommended garlic because it “cleans the arteries”. Four hundred years later, Galen discovered that blood is found in arteries, not air. In the seventeenth century, English physician, William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood.
Today, garlic has been proven to reduce cholesterol. Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, was another Greek physician in Rome at the time. He wrote Historica Naturalis, whereby he listed twenty-three medicinal uses for garlic.

From ancient India, the Caraka Samitha Sutra is an Ayurvedic text on internal medicine written by Caraka, (one of the principal contributors to Ayurveda medicine, which focuses on prevention of disease though lifestyle). In this text, written 2000 years ago, garlic is recommended for the prevention of heart disease and arthritis. A review by Rahman and Lowe in 2006 (Garlic and cardiovascular disease: a critical review) analyzed studies on garlic published from 1993 to 2006 and concluded that although garlic appears aide in reducing parameters associated with cardiovascular disease, more in-depth and appropriate studies are required. At this time in India, garlic was also considered an aphrodisiac. For this reason, Buddhist monks forbade- and some still do today- the consumption garlic. Mahayana Buddhists in China and Vietnam also avoid consumption of garlic because of its pungency, which excites the senses.

Despite this restriction, monks were allowed to use garlic as a medicine and during the Middle Ages, it was the monks who grew garlic and spread the knowledge of its uses throughout Europe. Once again, garlic was prescribed to increase strength.

During the Renaissance, “physic” gardens were found on the grounds of leading universities, where plants were grown to test their medical value. Garlic was the star of many of these gardens. Up to this point, physicians would reference Dioscorides for recommendations of medicinal herbs. However, during the Renaissance herbs were classified into hot, cold, dry and moist. Garlic was classified as hot and extremely drying and was used less in medicine. In 1597, John Gerald- a famous herbalist and surgeon in his time- wrote Gerald’s Herbal in which he proclaimed garlic “yeeldeth to the body not nourishment at all”.

During the great plagues, garlic was used very often as a protective medicine. It gained its fame when four thieves in Marseille were caught stealing from the dead bodies of plague victims and yet the thieves were not sick. They had made a concoction of garlic, wine vinegar and herbs and had soaked their masks and covered their bodies in this solution. As a result, garlic was known as the best antidote against the plague under the name of "Four Thieves Vinegar"- which can still be purchased in parts of France.

The use of garlic in cuisine was spreading throughout France, Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe. The English did not have a taste for garlic until late in the twentieth century. Even Shakespeare himself disliked garlic; In Henry IV Part I: act 3, scene 1, he writes:

“O, he is as tedious as a tired horse, a railing wife; worse than a smokey house: I had rather live with cheese and garlic in a windmill”

Christopher Columbus brought garlic to the Americas. By the seventeenth century, garlic had spread to Peru, where it was valued more than any other European herbs.

In North America, wild garlic had already been discovered by the Native Americans who used it raw to prevent scurvy and cooked to add flavour to dishes.

Garlic continued to be a valued medicine in the Americas until the end of the nineteenth century, with the boom of the pharmaceutical industry. It did have a brief comeback during World War I, when there was a shortage of antibiotics.

It was not until the late nineteenth century, when there was a large influx of immigrants, that garlic gained back its respected place in cuisine in the Americas.

Garlic’s long history of preventing and healing demands and deserves respect and its worldly history in cuisine makes it an ingredient worth savouring.

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