On the Jewish food scene: That wonderful, or awful, smell

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I walked into the kitchen and said, “Something smells wonderful!” A short while after, my father arrived home and said, “What is that awful stink?” No, my mother hadn’t started cooking something different: she was cooking with garlic, and my dad and I had very different reactions.

I’ve joked that if you don’t like onion or garlic powder, you can’t eat most of my cooking. When growing up, I associated garlic with Italian cooking because that was the main cuisine of most Endicott restaurants. Tomato sauce (or gravy, if you listen to Italians talk about it) was the cornerstone of many of these dishes. It wasn’t until later, when I became interested in Jewish culinary history, that I learned garlic was an important ingredient in Jewish food.

That does make sense. Just think of pickles, a popular Jewish food: I suppose you could make pickles without garlic, but they wouldn’t be nearly as good. Garlic isn’t/wasn’t found just in the Ashkenazi world, but in the Sephardic world. And the phenomenon is not new: the ancient Romans referred to Jews as garlic eaters. While I’m not sure they meant it as a compliment, I prefer to take it as one. However, throughout the centuries, the idea that Jews smell of garlic was meant as an insult. In the U.S. during the early part of the 20th century, social workers felt that the use of that and other spices negatively affected Jewish behavior, making the Jewish population more excitable. Bland food was thought to be more appropriate. That thought makes me shudder: give me spices any day.

In my research, I discovered that the Jewish love of garlic dates back to biblical times. When the Israelites in the desert complained to Moses about not having enough food to eat, one of the things they were nostalgic for was the garlic they ate in Egypt. According to MyJewishlearning.com (available here), Jewish cooking often didn’t differ from the cuisine of the surrounding culture except for one thing: the addition of garlic to those dishes. As a lover of garlic, that makes perfect sense to me. 

Speaking of being a garlic lover, my mom was also one. In fact, she loved garlic and onions. I can testify to the smell because sometimes I had to ask her to move back a little when she talked to me. One year, she began looking for a garlic roaster. She didn’t want one you had to put in the oven. For her birthday, I bought her an electric garlic roaster. Did she ever use it? No, but I did and started to add garlic to everything from tuna salad to pasta sauces. The best part of roasting the garlic? Eating it warm, straight from the roaster.

I don’t use the garlic roaster as much as I used to. It doesn’t make sense when there is only me to cook for. In fact, I think I’ve only used it once in the past few years. But I like knowing it’s there because it reminds me of my mom and the meals we shared.