Jews and Garlic: Love, Hate, and Confit

It’s springtime in Israel, and in the shuk, fresh garlic bulbs, still attached to their green scapes, lie piled on vendor’s stands. I pull out the biggest, most attractive ones for dishes like garlic soup, pickled garlic, chicken roasted on a bed of whole garlic bulbs, spring herb pestos and my favorite, garlic confit — a luscious spread of roasted garlic and herbs.

I pick up ten kilos of fresh green garlic that festoon the laundry room. The scent pervades the house and smells a bit like sausage. Until the juicy bulbs begin to dry inside their purple-tinted sheaths, (about four days) my teenager won’t invite friends over, embarrassed by the scent. When the atmosphere returns to normal, so does my daughter’s social life. Yet put a little dish of garlic confit to smear on challah in front of her, and she hardly wants to eat anything else.

Not all Jews are as fond of garlic as I am, but the bulbs have long been associated with Jews. The Talmud advises husbands to eat garlic on Shabbat night in order to perform their marital duty with vigor and says that it increases male fertility. On the other hand, no one denies that garlic breath is offensive, to the point that Cohanim performing service at the Temple were forbidden to eat it.

Garlic has also been used as a means of distinguishing and disgracing Jews. Egyptian slave masters fed the Israelites garlic to keep our strength up as they labored to build their storehouses. While Roman soldiers ate the bulb for the same purpose, historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that in the second century, emperor Marcus Aurelius contemptuously referred to Jews as “garlic eaters” after traveling through Palestine.

The origins of this stereotype are probably as ancient as the bones of Marcus Aurelius, but it’s in medieval writings that we see reference to “foetor Judaicus,” the “Jewish stench” of degeneracy and garlic. An anti-Semitic icon developed that has lived through centuries: the evil Jew, dishonest, beaky-nosed, and rank-smelling. Looking for ever more ways to dehumanize Jews, the Nazis used a perfectly acceptable and well-known symbol to represent Jews: the garlic bulb.

Today, I’m happy to shrug off history’s gloomy associations with these bulbs and step into the bustling shuk, where like me, Jews of every ethnic origin crowd around the garlic stands. Fresh garlic is milder than dried, but still full of garlicky character. If you buy it fresh enough, the sheath around it is still soft and edible. To preserve those big, fresh cloves before they dry and shrink, I make plenty of garlic confit — smearing it on challah, just like my daughter.

Garlic Confit

4 heads of garlic separated into cloves. Leave the peels on if garlic is fresh and juicy; peel if not.
1-1/2 cups olive oil
4 sprigs of thyme
2 medium bay leaves
1 teaspoon mustard seeds, or ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper, or both if you like fiery food
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 allspice berry
freshly-ground black pepper

1) Heat the oven to 300°F - 150 °C. Place the herbs in an ovenproof casserole dish.

2) Place the garlic cloves over the herbs and cover them with the olive oil. Scatter the coarse salt and grind black pepper generously over all.

3) Cover the casserole tightly with tin foil and bake for 2½ hours or until the garlic is very tender. Don’t stir the garlic when you check on it.

4) To use, strain the cloves out of the oil. Push the soft, mild flesh out of the root ends of the cloves and spread the paste on bread, or on grilled fish, or roast chicken. Or mix two tablespoons into dough for a mild-mannered garlic bread. Toss it with some of its cooking oil and dress steamed vegetables with it. Store in the refrigerator in or for up to two weeks, or freeze it. You may strain the fragrant cooking oil and use it in other dishes. The oil will keep a long time in the refrigerator.

Cook’s Notes:

Bonus recipe: For a garlicky springtime snack, set aside several fat cloves of fresh garlic. Pour 1/4 cup good olive oil into a bowl. Add the crushed garlic, a handful of chopped, leafy herbs like basil, coriander leaf and baby arugula. Add sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Stir, and dip chunks of fresh pita into the oil, scooping up bits of garlic and herbs.

And here’s a garlic-crushing tip: Throw your garlic crusher away. Place peeled cloves on a cutting board and chop them as finely as you have patience for. Then sprinkle a little salt over the garlic and scrape the knife edge over it a few times. This will grind the garlic into a paste. No more trying to extract the last bits of garlic out of a crusher, and one less gadget taking up room in your life.

Jews and Garlic: Love, Hate, and Confit

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