Although he grows 87 varieties of garlic on his tiny farm in Sonoma County, Calif., Chester Aaron would readily concede that nobody needs that many different kinds to eat. He himself can identify no more than eight or 10 garlics by taste, and when he exhibits at food shows or fairs, he puts out just three or four--some Creole Red, for its sweet, earthy flavor; a little Asian Tempest, for gum-scorching heat; a few heads of Spanish Roja, with a robust garlic flavor that fills the mouth and everything else between the toes and the scalp. Even so, the same people who insist on extra-virgin Umbrian olive oil in numbered bottles sometimes find it hard to believe they should bother tasting anything as banal as garlic.
"This is a scam," one woman, a well-known food writer and critic, once announced to Aaron at a Washington, D.C., food fair. "Garlic is garlic."
Aaron mashed a little Asian Tempest into a bowl of hummus and fed it to her on a cracker. She gasped in astonishment, mingled with pain.
"See," he said. "You wouldn't say 'apples are apples,' would you?"
You wouldn't, but for a while in this country, it looked as if things might be heading in that direction. Even commercial apple growers have begun to acknowledge that they have bred themselves into a corner, producing a brilliantly colored, mechanically uniform, virtually indestructible product with all the flavor of a raw potato. But the last few years have also seen a burgeoning of "heirloom" fruits and vegetables that weren't bred to look the same in every supermarket from Maine to Hawaii. They are, typically, highly perishable, expensive, hard to find--and delicious, for the few weeks each year they happen to be in season. Their very existence serves the practical function of keeping alive genetic diversity within species. "That means that if a bug wipes out one strain of a crop--even garlic--you can substitute others that might be resistant," says David Auerbach, one of the U.S. directors of Slow Food International. This group, founded in Italy to oppose the encroachment of McDonald's on the sacred Italian lunch, now carries on a broader fight against the industrialization of food. "The more you narrow the gene pool, the greater the risk that you could lose it all."
Of course, it's become a commonplace in some circles to disdain the red Delicious apple and the pink supermarket tomato, but the garlic snob is a relatively new phenomenon. Unlike most heirloom produce, gourmet garlic has almost no nostalgia appeal; until the 1970s the vast majority of garlic grown in America was processed into powder or salt, to be sprinkled, at the parts-per-billion level, into meatloaf or spaghetti sauce. That was long before researchers investigated garlic's unique chemical properties, which have been shown to lower cholesterol and appear to reduce the incidence of certain cancers. And even long after fresh garlic became widely available, most people knew it only in the form of the two leading commercial varieties, California Early and Late, which account for at least 90 percent of American garlic consumption--around three pounds per capita annually, up from a half pound before 1970.
Those are "softneck" garlics, with flexible, braidable tops. They ship well, store well and are perfectly good when sauteed in olive oil, drowned in tomato sauce and buried under olives for spaghetti puttanesca, or pulverized in the blender with ginger and onions as the starting point for a lamb curry. But there is another family of garlic, the "hardnecks," with a stiff central stalk--harder to grow and relatively perishable, although easier to peel. Raw, they display a whole other palette of flavors, which Aaron describes lovingly with the same vivid vocabulary used by vintners: floral, peppery, tannic, buttery, nutty, sweet. These are the garlics of choice to mash with basil and cheese for pesto, or whip up with roasted eggplant to make baba ghanouj--just don't expect to find them at Safeway.
No one keeps track of how much gourmet garlic is grown in America, but here's one measure for comparison: the largest commercial grower, Don Christopher of Gilroy, Calif., produces about 75 million pounds a year; Aaron's entire crop is about 2,000 pounds, which might supply one square block of Chinatown. On the other hand, he sells a lot of it to gardeners who will plant the cloves and raise it themselves, so his cultural effect is magnified somewhat. There are a few farms that are bigger, although not by much, and some that grow even more varieties. The champion is probably Darrell Merrell, of Tulsa, Okla., who runs the city's annual Garlic Is Life festival, the boutique counterpart to the huge and heavily commercialized Gilroy Garlic Festival, which last year attracted about 120,000 tourists to Tulsa's 5,000. Merrell has 465 named varieties in the ground, a figure probably several times larger than the actual number of biologically unique strains; in spreading all over the world from Central Asia, the same strain may have picked up three or four different local names, and geneticists are only now starting to sort them out. Raising heirloom garlic is somewhere between a hobby and a calling, but it isn't much of a business. Merrell is 61, a retired stockbroker and banker who moved back to his family's vegetable farm a decade ago to help his parents out. Aaron is 77, a former hospital X-ray tech-nician, college professor and writer who raised garlic for his kitchen for years before he ever stopped to consider the different kinds. He sells his crop by mail order for $10 a pound, but he'll give it away to anyone who promises to send him a garlic recipe in return; his business plan is to put the recipes into books and sell the books. No one has ever stiffed him in this honor-system transaction, he says, with the exception of professional chefs.
Aaron doesn't grow California Early or Late. He plants his quarter acre of raised beds with Siberian and Romanian Red, Polish Carpathian White, Georgian Crystal and Purple Tip. Every November he puts in the cloves by hand. Every July he pulls up the fat, round bulbs by hand and hangs them to dry in his shed. And every September he sends them to his customers, except for the ones he saves to mince and smear on toast for a breakfast bruschetta. "I'm helping to keep something important alive," he says. "Me." Actually, it's getting hard even for Aaron to keep up with all the hoeing and tilling and battling the gophers, which would chew up his entire crop in a night if they could get to it. But this is his way of fulfilling his role in the ecology of the planet, contributing to the diversity of life and the improvement of the world's aioli. And it's in his blood, in the metaphorical as well as the medical sense. He'll never forget the time, early in his farming life, when a man drove by with a truckload of a kind of garlic Aaron had never seen before, with very large, rose-tinged bulbs and red-streaked cloves. The man told him it was called Red Toch and it came from Tochliavri, a village in Soviet Georgia.
"You know what else comes from there?" Aaron said. "My father."
Like we said, it's in his blood.