Jim Harrison, the poet, talks frequently in his food writing about discovering garlic for the first time when he moved away from home in the Midwest to New York. I learned about garlic in 1967, in the kitchen of my friend Dominic Giaccobi’s mother, down at the end of Huntington Ave. in Hyde Park.
My mother was a decent cook, though because she worked, our dinners often consisted of the standard: meat, starch, and vegetable, some of it miracle space-age instant food and some of it (vegetables, especially) frozen. Tasting the homemade tomato sauce in Mrs. Giaccobi’s kitchen, sitting at the table after school with her hovering over me saying “Eat, Eat,” introduced me to the wonders of spices and the warmth of the kitchen.
In my hippie headband days, I wore a purple-gray bandana with the legend Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers. What I didn’t realize until lately was that it referred to a 1980 documentary film about the benefits of garlic called Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers. Appropriately enough, it was filmed at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California.
Garlic was my gateway drug to cooking with flavor and spice. As soon as I was away from home and cooking for myself, a woman friend introduced me to rosemary, the sharp piney-resin flavor that enhances roast chicken and lamb. I’ve forgotten her name, but the power of the memory is that I’ve grown rosemary (and garlic) everywhere I’ve lived since then. And oregano, thyme, dill, and parsley.
A recent dinner with friends, hosted by a couple whose husband is, like me, the family cook, reminded me of Mrs. Giaccobi. Bill, who is also Italian, put together what his family called the Sunday Sauce, slow-cooked meat (sausage, beef, and meatballs), rigatoni pasta, and a dousing of marinara sauce to keep things moist. It was, as many of our gatherings are, a raucous meal, and just what we all needed after this long stretch of not feeling able to meet in groups.
It’s such a cliché to say that food is love, and yet—we forget. The care Mrs. Giaccobi put into her food was her daily gift, the daylong slow-cooking and tasting from the back of Bill’s stove one of the most potent ways to say that you love people. It’s a way to care for people, to love in the mode of philia, the love for the friends in your circle and the ones who may someday be.
The original phrase, of course, was that garlic is better than ten mothers for keeping the “girls” away. I much prefer the shorter, less specific form. For love, for care of your circle, garlic is as good than ten mothers. Maybe better.