BERKELEY — At Aris Books, the aromatic clove reigns supreme.
Inside the often smelly cookbook publishing house are wall posters and offbeat tributes to Allium Sativum or garlic, a member of the lily family heralded in folklore as magical, mystical and medicinal.
The cement-block building next to Alice Water's Cafe Fanny and flanked by rows of abandoned houses is also the headquarters of the 4,500-member Lovers of the Stinking Rose, avid supporters of garlic-mania.
Lloyd John Harris, who shook the culinary world with his breathless and enthusiastic "The Book of Garlic" back in 1974 and who edits the fan club's Garlic Times newsletter, says he can smell a great garlic revolution spreading around the world.
"I get mail all the time from people confessing their deep attachment to garlic," said Harris, who has since published "The Official Garlic Lovers Handbook" and who prints many of the poems, praises and recipes in the newsletters and books. "Some letters are very funny and some are very serious."
Harris, who once led a national boycott by garlic lovers against mouthwash products, has begun a garlic gallery near his test kitchen. The gallery includes such items as clove-shaped ceramics, garlic-flavored gum, garlic perfume, remedial garlic tablets, and garlic presses, souvenirs, jokes and posters. An artist, Harris has also carved several garlic-shaped pipes.
"What I look for are things that are seriously funny or seriously serious, like the garlic bubble gum," said Harris, whose advocacy of the herb has earned him the nickname Mr. Garlic. "There's a lot of junk being manufactured like crazy now because of the success of events like the Gilroy Garlic Festival."
The Gilroy, Calif., event, modeled after a festival in Arleux, France, took place in late July and drew about 140,000 people to a three-day event that featured a "gourmet alley" of garlicky dishes and free samples of garlic ice cream. Industry figures from the self-proclaimed "Garlic Capital of the World" say 200 million pounds of the pungent herb are now grown in the United States.
Harris helped launch the Gilroy event and is involved with several smaller festivals that have sprouted up in such places as Seattle, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Fitchburg, Mass., and Toronto.
"It's a wonderful food ritual and wherever garlic is grown in the world there are festivals," Harris said. "So, it seems that wherever it is grown in the United States there should be harvest festivals."
The original garlic book, of which more than 120,000 copies have sold, remains the cornerstone of Harris' publishing business, which specializes in passionate single-subject books about food.
"The idea behind Aris Books is that it would be a forum for other people like myself whose food passions could be translated through the written word as opposed to simply directed through cooking."
Of these books, one of the first was "The International Squid Cookbook," which Harris said was like writing about "the garlic of the sea because it presented the same kind of negative as well as positive image." Another favorite, Harris said, was "Mythology and Meatballs," a literary journey on a Greek Island emphasizing the people and the food. A recent offering is from the Mycological Society of San Francisco and is titled "Wild About Mushrooms."
Harris tries all the recipes in the books he publishes at his test kitchen.
"We create an atmosphere, obviously, where the words and the food can come together," said Harris, who has built a catalogue of 25 titles that are sold mail-order and in gourmet food and specialty stores.
Although Harris has occasionally tried to shed his garlic persona to become more serious about the publishing side of his business, he keeps being drawn back to the herb that he said has survived through the ages despite derision and scorn by mostly upper-class people who didn't like the earthy, pungent aroma it left on their breath.
"The peasants in every country where they grow garlic eat garlic," said Harris. "It's a peasant food and a farmer's food. As you go up the social ladder, you find people discarding the elements that would identify them with lower classes, so the social implications of eating garlic is one of the fascinating aspects of its history."
Even Americans who like garlic, Harris said, often remove the clove before serving the food, an act akin to heresy. Fortunately, he said, this is happening less because of an emphasis on herbs, spices and regional cuisine in cooking circles.
Shift Toward Simplicity
"What we're calling the New American Cuisine is a shift away from gourmet cooking, which comes from the European elite, and back toward peoples' foods simply prepared and highly spiced. That's what regional cooking is all about."
Alice Waters, whose four-star Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley has taken part in annual local garlic festivals in recent years, said the presence of the ubiquitous bulb on the menu became so popular she had to add it to the desserts.