For a long time, I avoided garlic like the plague. I avoided it because I was petrified my breath would smell, people would hate me, and I’d spend forever alone because of that fact.
That may sound like a wildly spiralling chain of events beginning with an aversion to garlic and ending with ostracism, but I cannot help but remain scarred by a moment long ago, sitting in a university lecture, smelling of garlic. I had worked late at my bar job and I was hungry when I got home, having not had any dinner. The only thing in my fridge was garlic bread. I ate said garlic bread. I enjoyed said garlic bread. When I woke in the morning, I couldn’t shift the overwhelming taste of garlic in my mouth, and left the house wondering how pungent my garlic breath was, and how noticeable it would be. Turns out it was pretty noticeable, my best friend Joe turning to me after the lecture and saying, “Do you want some chewing gum, mate?”
Since then, I’ve always planned my garlic consumption, and on the same grounds my chorizo consumption, and red onion consumption, on whether or not I will be seeing anyone in the proceeding twenty-four hours. If the answer is yes, avoid those foods. If the answer is no, I can gorge on garlic all I like.
I may sound like I’m using garlic to deflect from the nature of anxiety, and in fact what I actually fear is the negative judgement of others, leading me to deliberately sabotage my enjoyment of food out of an irrational fear of a very natural occurrence in the human body. But this is a culinary article, not an examination of my psyche, so I want to talk about garlic some more.
Like the vast majority of us, at least those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home, I have spent the last year largely in my own company due to a certain pandemic. Thus, the answer to the question, “Can I eat garlic today?” has always been, “Yes”.
With this freedom, I found myself cooking more and more with garlic, whereas in the past I had left it out when a recipe required it, or used the thinnest slither of a clove and chopped it so finely it could have hardly an impact. Whilst everyone on the internet seemed to be making sourdough and going for yet another goddamn walk just to feel something, the lockdown and subsequent isolation left me able to eat garlic, chorizo, red onion, all manner of pungent foodstuffs I had previously restricted from my diet.
I’m not the most advanced cook, but since then, I’ve made bruschetta for the first time (a food I usually saved for non-date trips to restaurants), and migas, and paellas, and tarator salmon. I had never prepared these foods before because of my fear of such a basic and ubiquitous ingredient — garlic. Now, in my isolation, I could indulge in the recipes I remembered as a child, like the bruschetta I shared with my Father on family holidays, and the roast potatoes he would make on a Sunday cooked in rosemary and garlic. I could once again relive those tastes, experience those flavours, and revive those memories. My fear of bad breath had severely hampered my ability to enjoy the foods I wanted to enjoy, try the foods I wanted to try (I had wanted to make migas since I saw it on a Rick Stein documentary), and cook foods I’d never dreamed of cooking. Now I seemed free of that fear, no longer shackled by the smell of garlic.
But what of the newfound confidence in my cooking skills, in these recipes I have taught myself, in my refusal to be held hostage by the smell of my breath; where will they stand when I can see my friends again? Will I still be as bold as to stand up to garlic and refuse to be bullied into abstinence?
Because garlic is hardly a rare ingredient. You can buy a pack of five bulbs from Aldi for less than a pound. It’s in Indian food, Italian, Spanish, French, British, German, it is an ingredient which can be found in all manner of dishes. It can carry a dish, it can lead a dish, it can support a dish. You can chop it, crush it, dice it, roast it, stuff it in an olive for all I care.
Garlic, whether I like it or not, is an inescapable ingredient. We all eat it. We all love it. So who cares if my breath smells of it? I enjoy my food now. Maybe, perhaps, we should all smell like garlic. We should all smell like garlic together.