You can burn the flag, and I'll call you a repugnant zealot and forgive you. You can be the president of the Saddam Hussein fan club, and I'll call you an abysmal judge of hero material and forgive you. You can say that baseball is a boring game for wimps and mama's boys, and I'll say that every one of your neural synapses has shut down, but I'll forgive you. You can even step on my blue suede shoes.
But say anything against garlic around me and be prepared to be called a rotten weasel of a slimy, godless Commie who thinks Wonder Bread is daring cuisine and who would spend the next 50 millennia in purgatory if I could put the fix in with the Pope.
Yes, I love it that much.
And not only do I believe with all my heart, soul, mind and body that there ought to be great braids of garlic bulbs in every kitchen and in almost all dishes other than fudge ripple ice cream, I also believe that if you have a plot of fertile earth at your command, at least a part of it ought to be lovingly planted with the stuff.
Fortunately, growing garlic is about as difficult as tying your shoes. In the interest of getting the technical stuff out of the way early so I can get back to telling you how great garlic is, here's how it's done:
There are no garlic seeds as such, so you plant individual cloves. Do this within a couple of days after you separate the cloves from the bulb. The cloves should be planted in the fall, flat end down, in sandy or cultivated and fertilized soil, about three fingers apart and an inch deep (very little space is needed for a good-sized crop).
You can also do this in a container at least 6 inches deep, using potting soil. Because garlic is a member of the lily family, it thrives on moisture and should be watered at least every five days. A nitrogen fertilizer should be used four or five times during its growing period.
At harvest time (summer), the shoots above ground will begin to turn yellow and flop over. When this happens, stop watering for a week or more to let the bulbs dry out and form the parchment-like skin that covers the cloves. To harvest them, grab the shoots and gently pull up the bulbs. That's it.
Then, if you want to get that homey Mediterranean look in your kitchen, you can braid the shoots together, forming the bulbs into a kind of marvelously fragrant rope, and hang it up, always at the ready.
Make sure it's kept in a cool, dry, ventilated place, out of the sun (not the refrigerator). It'll keep from four to six months that way. If new green shoots begin to appear out of the bulbs, that doesn't mean the garlic's unusable. The taste, however, will be milder.
Garlic will keep indefinitely if frozen in clove form and packed in plastic freezer bags. But if you're crazed for garlic--which makes you one of the finest, truest and most utterly wonderful people on the planet--the bulbs won't be around long enough to lose even the slightest bit of pungency.
You don't like garlic, you say? Nonsense. You just think you don't like garlic. Actually, what you're probably worried about is garlic breath, which, no question about it, is a fact of garlic life. And you can forget covering it up by brushing your teeth and going through a case of mouthwash. Because when you eat garlic, raw or cooked, an oil contained in the plant called allicin enters the bloodstream and is transferred to your breath through your lungs. As long as you have allicin in your bloodstream, you're going to have garlic breath.
But who cares? Consider the trade-offs:
Allicin, in the body, turns into ajoene, an ingredient that research seems to indicate reduces the risk of blood-clotting at least as effectively as aspirin.
Garlic repels mosquitoes and fleas. Priests in the Middle Ages who ate it could circulate among their flock who were dying of bubonic plague and not become infected by the contaminated fleas that were everywhere.
It's a natural antibiotic. In 1858, Louis Pasteur discovered that garlic juice killed bacteria in culture dishes (no less than two dozen kinds, including staphylococcus and salmonella). During World War I, battlefield surgeons sterilized scalpels by drawing them through garlic cloves; in World War II, it was known as "Russian penicillin." (Prohibition-era gangsters, not exactly up on their biology, used to tip their bullets with garlic, thinking that if the bullets didn't do their job, the garlic would cause gangrene in the victim. Pure hogwash.)
Medical studies have suggested that garlic (as well as onions, leeks, chives and scallions) may offer some protection against stomach cancer.
The ancient Egyptians swore oaths on it. Roman soldiers ate large amounts of it to gain strength for both battle and amorous encounters.
It tastes terrific.
It smells wonderful.
Not sure about that last one? Drive through Gilroy during the last weekend in July. That's when the town's Garlic Festival is going on. Gilroy processes about 90% of all the garlic used in the United States. During the festival weekend, the entire region smells like every bit of it is sizzling in frying pans.
If that doesn't make your salivary glands cut loose like fire hoses, you've been dead for 10 years and probably ate cold gruel while you were alive.
And if you're still worried about garlic breath, all you have to do is hang out with other people who love it. You'll cancel each other out, and nobody will smell a thing.