Technically, garlic is a member of the lily family. It grows from a bulb, just like onions or shallots. In fact, what we eat is the garlic clove, which is just one part of the garlic bulb. If you like, you can plant a clove and it will grow more garlic. The green shoots are edible too.
Sometimes called 'the stinking rose', garlic is known to most cultures round the world. It was first grown in Siberia, but quickly spread throughout Asia. It is mentioned in ancient Sanskrit writings, and was written about by Chinese sages as early as 3000 BC. According to Herodotus, the workers on the pyramids of Egypt lived mainly on a diet of garlic and onions. When you stop to think about how many workers it took to build the pyramids, it's possible to surmise that it was easy to find the work sites from downwind.
Like many other things, garlic is thought to have been brought to Europe by Marco Polo or perhaps by returning Crusaders. Garlic didn't really catch on in America until the GI's returned from Europe after World War II. Since then, the US has become one of the leading producers and consumers of garlic in the world. 90% of the American garlic crop is grown in the area of Gilroy, California, home of the famous Garlic Festival.
There are something like 300 strains of garlic grown commerically these days. If all you've had is that dreadful dried stuff from a spice tin, you owe it to yourself to try some real garlic. One good way to do so is with roasted garlic:
- Cut the tops off of whole bulbs.
- Sprinkle with olive oil.
- Wrap in foil and roast in a 325°F or 176°C oven for about an hour.
- Squeeze out the softened cloves and spread it on bread like butter.