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EVER BEEN TO A CARROT FESTIVAL? Probably not. But you can honor garlic (the stinking rose) at more than two dozen festivals in the United States—including one in Saugerties—as well as at countless celebrations overseas. Other foods may have fans, but garlic has lovers.

Garlic is the most famous (and infamous) member of the lily family. Called everything from rustic cure-all to Russian penicillin, Bronx vanilla and Italian perfume, it has been loved, worshiped and despised throughout history. It’s the Lord Byron of produce—a lusty rogue that charms and seduces you but runs off before dawn, leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

Born in the aptly-named Celestial Mountains of Central Asia thousands of years ago, garlic takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon words gar (spear) and leac (leak) because of its sharp, tapering leaves. It traveled the Silk Road with nomadic traders eastward across the Caucuses into the Middle East, and from there southward to India and westward to China. It came to Europe from the Holy Land as part of the Crusaders’ plunder and acquired fervent fans throughout the Mediterranean region before reaching the New World on the ships of Christopher Columbus.

Garlic, probably more than any other vegetable, literally permeates the history of mankind. It’s mentioned in the Bible, the Koran and the Talmud. The Israelites lamented that they had no garlic on the journey to the Promised Land; Mohammed advocated it as an antidote for stings and snake bites, but did not want its odor permeating mosques and declared “He who has eaten onion or garlic or leek should not approach our mosque because the angels are also offended by the strong smells.” After the prophet Ezra proscribed that Jews eat garlic on the eve of the Sabbath because of its properties as an aphrodisiac, it was included in the Talmud as an oneg Shabbat (delight of the Sabbath). (Strangely, despite its powers of seduction, garlic itself is asexual-grown from cloves without pollination.)

Sadly, garlic has also been used to discriminate against different ethnic and religious groups, especially Jews, Italians and Koreans—”garlic eaters” has been used as a derogatory slur for centuries. In the iconic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey supports the town’s immigrant population to the dismay of the city’s powerful banker, Mr. Potter, who refers to them disdainfully as “George Bailey’s garlic eaters.”

One of the few products used in the world’s three major ancient healing systems—India’s Ayurveda, traditional Chinese, and traditional European medicine—garlic is credited with curing everything from baldness and scurvy to cancer and the plague. Its health benefits (and odor) come from allicin, a sulphur compound that’s not present in garlic until it’s cut or crushed. The phenomenon wasn’t scientific­ally understood until 1944, when Italian chemist Chester Cavallito first isolated and studied allicin. Garlic also is rich in protein, vitamins A, B, and C, as well as iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and selenium.

The story of garlic is especially relevant now, as a large number of garlics—with names like Georgian Crystal, Russian Red and Persian Star—are showing up at farmers’ markets around the country. While some of the garlic varieties came in with Polish, German and Italian immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most arrived around 1989. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had been asking the Soviet government for permission to traverse the Caucasus region and the old Silk Road to collect garlic. Permission was always denied because the area was covered with Soviet missile bases. Then, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating in 1989, the Russians acceded to the requests, and representatives from the USDA, along with a band of garlic aficionados, traveled from village to village along the historic trade route, buying garlic from local markets and naming the cultivars after the town or village where they were purchased. Over the past 20 years, these garlic varieties have made their way into the farms and markets of this country and are becoming more available, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.

While Gilroy, California, the self-proclaimed “World Capital of Garlic,” grows 80 percent of the garlic grown in this country, it produces only two varieties—early white and late white. Both are “softneck” garlics, which are easier to grow and keep longer than “hardnecks,” which thrive where winters are cold, springs are cool and damp, and summers are warm and dry (which makes them a perfect fit for this area). Hardnecks develop bulbs with fewer cloves than softnecks, and offer a greater range of flavors. Georgian Fire, for example, is really hot when raw, making it perfect for a spicy salsa.

One of the best places to taste and purchase different garlic varieties is the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival, where growers from throughout the Northeast sell over 60 types. Pat Reppert launched the festival in 1989 to promote her fledgling garlic and herb business at Shale Hill Farm and Herb Gardens. A notice in her newsletter, Notes from Shale Farm, and an article in a local newspaper lured 100 aficionados to the inaugural event; the next year, more than 400 people showed up. Today, more than 50,000 garlic lovers flock to the two-day event, now held at Cantine Field in Saugerties on the last weekend in September.

Garlic—everything is on the festival menu—vendors sell garlic chicken, scampi, fries, sauerkraut, pretzels and even ice cream. Sigmund Freud, not a big fan of American culture, would have hated the festival—the father of psychoanalysis once told a patient, “You Americans are like this: Garlic’s good; chocolate’s good. Let’s put a little garlic on chocolate and eat it.” (This is noted with apologies to local chocolatier Oliver Kita, who uses roasted garlic to add a subtle, almost elusive sweetness to his luscious roasted garlic truffles. He also whips up roasted garlic caramels for Halloween.)

In Saugerties last year, Paul and Kathleen Coleman, of Rutkowski Farm, a third-generation family farm outside Saratoga, touted their Ukrainian Red as a “a spicy garlic with an initial bite that dissipates quickly leaving a nice buttery finish” (sort of like a cross between an angry dog and a California chardonnay). Jim and Mary Ann Ireland, of Fulton, have one of the most varied selections—more than 25 different varieties. Among the embarrassment of riches were Korean Red, a hardneck with great hot flavor, and Music (named for Al Music, a Canadian garlic grower), an easy-to-grow variety that’s popular among home growers. Alliumphobes beware: This is a pungent affair to remember—and a must for garlic lovers who will concur with CBS news legend Morley Safer, who declared, “You can never have enough garlic. With enough garlic, you can eat The New York Times.”

Garlic is the signature crop of Keith Stewart, The Valley Table‘s Locally Grown columnist, whose 88-acre farm in Greenville produces a prodigious amount of the flavorful Rocambole, a hardneck variety that grows well in the Hudson Valley. “This has been an above-average year for garlic,” Stewart says, “Decent—not phenomenal—perfectly satisfactory.”

In August, the barn, shed and basement at Keith’s Farm overflow with 60,000 bulbs bundled and tied, hung from the rafters, set to cure. By December every bulb will have been sold, except for the 10,000 or so he’ll have planted sometime in November for next year’s crop.

Chefs wax poetic about Stewart’s garlic: it peels easily and has outstanding flavor. “When first picked, it’s fresh, crisp and juicy,” Stewart comments, noting that as garlic ages it dehydrates—it’s tastiest from picking day (usually July) through December, though if it is cured well and stored correctly in a cool, dry place, it will last well into the new year—perhaps until April, in time for the first sprouts of the next season’s green garlic.

Robin Cherry, who has traveled to garlic festivals across the northern hemisphere, is at work on a history of garlic. She has 180 cloves (mostly of the spicy Eastern European varieties) planted in her back­yard in the Hudson Valley. Follow her garlic journey on www.garlicscapes.com.

Hudson Valley Restaurant Week is back this April 8-21!