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April 16, 2008

Garlic and Rotten Eggs

Garlic is relatively new to Yankee cuisine. I love garlic so much that practically every recipe I use, except those for dessert, begins with “fry a little onion and garlic in olive oil….”  But this was not always so.

My mother reported that in the Depression, my grandmother learned how to make spaghetti sauce from an Italian neighbor, and while my gram, grandpa, and mom liked tomato sauce on pasta, mom said, “Of course, your grandmother left out the garlic.” Of course.

Garlic smelled like poverty and foreigners. It was not genteel.

A glimpse of this attitude appears in the 1849 journal of a Yankee sailor who with some shipmates went ashore in the Azores looking for a nice hot meal. After months eating salt beef and hardtack, Nelson Haley and his friends eagerly anticipated the chicken stew  set in the middle of a table laid with a white cloth, plates, flatware and tumblers, with even a bottle of wine set at each place. Alas, after the first mouthful, each fellow laid down his fork and knife, disgusted and disappointed.

Haley wrote, “The one who had cooked it had stuffed it full of garlic, and to all of us, if rotten eggs had been in it, the taste no doubt could not have been worse.” Haley convinced the proprietor to bring a dish of stew made without garlic, but the sailors still could detect the flavor from the cooking pot . Nonetheless, they got it down, probably aided by extra wine served up to soothe their dissatisfaction.

A hundred and fifty years later, Haley’s descendants would likely relish the garlicky stew and maybe even welcome a side of garlic bread.

Sandy Oliver, Food Historian, Author, MF&L columnist: The Way Things Were

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