We aren’t Italian, so at least culturally speaking, we have dubious claim to the herb beyond it being the second most-consumed spice in America after black pepper. But nothing comforts me like the smell of the “stinking rose,” and I believe religiously in the words of the chef Louis Diat who once said “there are five elements: earth, air, fire, water, and garlic.”
As personal as garlic is to me, I know the experience in my mother’s kitchen isn’t ours alone. For centuries, millions of other daughters and sons have stood by stoves and firesides to learn how to break apart a garlic head, crack open the papery cloves, and extract the slick, smelly jewels within. Consuming garlic today is to be in communion not just with my own family’s history, but a whole human network that started eating the plant in prehistoric Siberia before it made its way into Chinese gardens, Egyptian pharaohs’ tombs, and the text of the Bible and the Quran. Later, garlic was a European cure-all, packed aboard ships and brought to North and South America by colonialists; now it is eaten by “almost every culture on Earth.”
On the surface, the garlic festival attack was just like any of the other mass shootings to happen this month: symptomatic of an unchecked American gun problem, and barely registered in the national press. The Gilroy attack resulted in neither the highest death count in recent memory, nor was it particularly sensational in its details aside from the age of its youngest victim. But the attack was poignant because it was targeted at a community of people brought together by one of mankind’s most ancient and cherished delights, a strange little plant that smells, to each of us, unmistakably like home.
Garlic — despite being traceable to every inhabitable continent — is an incredibly intimate food. Part of this is due to its smell, which clings to the skin and breath and understandably ostracized the ingredient from polite European and American society through at least the 1940s. As a result of its reputation, garlic is safest consumed around the people you love, the sort who might allow for such an odor in their immediate vicinity. Or, barring that, garlic ought to be eaten around others who love it as much as you do. Maybe that’s all that family is, anyway; people who eat the same things as you.
One of the best records of the community garlic creates is Les Blank’s 1980 documentary Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers. In it, Blank records various chefs, botanists, musicians, and enthusiasts speaking about their love of garlic; often, though, he resorts to simply showing the herb across various forms of preparation, from being mixed into pesto to brushed bare-handed across a slab of meat. Blank even captures footage of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, then just a year or two old, complete with a garlic-laden belly dancer and vendors hawking “pet garlic” to kids.
At one point, an enthusiast tries to explain what it’s like to enjoy garlic so deeply. “Being drunk is a different kind of euphoria, being stoned is a different kind of euphoria,” he tells Blank. “Garlic euphoria is kind of like, grounded. You feel like you’ve got both feet planted on the ground. You’re a part of the world.”
I think that’s what Diat is getting at in his quote about garlic being as elemental as fire and water, too. There is a whole human family brought together by the herb, by the slapdash culinary lessons that accompany it, by the taste of a perfect pesto or Hoisin sauce, and by the festivals that celebrate these multinational connections every year. “[The Gilroy Garlic Festival] has been our annual family reunion,” is how Brian Bowe, the executive director, put it, referencing the estimated 100,000 attendees.
The number, though, doesn’t matter. The funny thing about garlic is that regardless of how many people worldwide claim it as a part of their identity, it is always ultimately as simple as a single kitchen, a single question. Smell that? It’s as potent as memory, as necessary as air and earth, and so you return to it again and again, meal after meal, whiff after whiff, until you learn to know it as well as you know your mother’s hands.
Editor’s note: This piece previously stated that the shooter used an automatic weapon. According to authorities, it was a semi-automatic “AK-47-type” assault rifle. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.