“If you grow good garlic, people will love you for it. In fact, you can grow even fair garlic or even rather cosmetically inferior garlic, and people will still compliment you for your pains, more so than perhaps for any other vegetable crop.”
Stanley Crawford, A Garlic Testatment: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm (University of New Mexico Press, 1992)
A couple of hours north of Santa Fe, on the low road to Taos, near the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Embudo, a bumpy two-lane road veers off to the east. A mile or so along New Mexico 75 will bring you to Dixon, population 1,500. At first glance it is a typical New Mexico rural town, with dilapidated adobe buildings and a battered truck or two pulled up in front of the post office. But then I passed a weaver’s workshop and a sign for a painter’s studio. Outside the local cooperative market, a blackboard easel had the word “Expresso” scrawled large.
So by the time I rumbled down the dirt road to El Bosque farm, I knew I had crossed into New Mexico’s special twilight zone. It’s a mystical world straddling art, religion and nature, populated by aging hippies, Zen Buddhists, organic farmers and artists of high and low talents. Like D. H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keefe, and countless others, they are drawn here by the magnificence of the desert landscape and the clarity of the light. More than anything, there is a rare solitude, the sense that you can be alone, free to commune with your own brand of God and nature.
I had come to Dixon to meet Stanley Crawford, a 69-year-old writer, author of four novels and two memoirs, educated at the University of Chicago and the Sorbonne, husband of Rose Mary, an ebullient Australian woman whom he met in Greece, and the father of two grown children. He is also a farmer who happens to grow really good garlic. One of his two memoirs, A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm, is a meditation on the long growing cycle of the bulb and the farmer’s intimate connection to the world around him.
For some reason I was not quite prepared for the tall, thin man walking toward me. Crawford has deep-set eyes, and his hair and neatly trimmed beard are streaked with silver. He is wearing old Teva sandals, cargo shorts and a short-sleeved batik shirt. He is pleasant but a little remote, as if part of him is still at the typewriter, working out a difficult passage in his head. He looks more like a novelist than a man who gets his hands in the dirt, and in fact his latest book, Petroleum Man, a satire he describes as “the Master of the Universe lecturing to his children,” is in Santa Fe bookstores.
The annals of garlic are rife with boisterously titled books penned by self confessed “garliholics,” (as in The Stinking Cookbook: A Layman’s Guide to Garlic Eating, Drinking, and Stinking). Scores of others tout garlic’s curative powers: lower blood pressure and reduced cholesterol, plus antibacterial and antibiotic properties. It’s a short leap to a National Enquirer headline reminding us of garlic’s link to vampires: “Nichole Ritchie’s Smelly Necklace Disgusts Diners!” (“…Draped around the star’s neck was a garland of garlic bulbs rancid enough to stagger Count Dracula…”)
A Garlic Testament is different. Written in 1992, it is a contemplative look at the life cycle of the bulb and the metamorphosis of the farmer who grows it. Crawford invites us to share in the hurried fall planting, the long winter “sleep,” the uncertain harvest in early summer—and finally, what I suspect is the worst part, chatting with customers at the farmer’s market. It is the very best sort of memoir: candid, funny, cranky, lyrical and on nearly every page, there a brilliantly observed detail or passage.
Here is Crawford on what happens while you’re waiting in late winter for garlic shoots to poke their heads above ground:
“Waiting or the stillness of some kinds of waiting, the immobility, the forms of waiting that differ from the human-induced wait in that you don’t ever quite know what you’re waiting for: these are the relaxed and expectant positions in which you can best know the workings of nature. Of course you are waiting for your garlic to come up. But for months there is little to see. So you measure the passage of time against the growth of certain grasses, the patterns of melting snow, the flights of birds, an angle of light, the wind, until gradually you have pulled these things inside you, and one of the barriers has momentarily dissolved, and the distance has been traversed.”
Anyway, we were sitting on the sun porch of Crawford’ s home, sipping Rose Mary’s delicious Red Zinger-pineapple-orange juice-mint-concoction, when the sky blackened and a fierce hail storm burst across the farm. Ice pellets the size of mothballs slammed hard into the ground. Then came a pounding thunderstorm and jagged lightening. Crawford tried to answer my questions about garlic, but the noise outside was deafening and his eyes kept straying to the window. “We planted 800 basil and zinnia seedlings yesterday,” he said in a strangled voice.
In the scheme of things, New Mexico isn’t a big garlic producer. Most of the garlic grown commercially in the U.S. comes, as it has for decades, from California: in 2004, the state accounted for 82 percent of total acreage harvested. Oregon and Nevada were a distant second and third, with 14 percent and 4 percent respectively. The two types of garlic most commonly grown are California Early and California Late—and Gilroy, home of the famous garlic festival, clings to its crown as the Garlic Capital of the World despite a devastating outbreak of rust disease and a losing battle with cheaper imported Chinese garlic.
Garlic falls into three broad product categories: dehydrated, fresh and seed stock—and each category tends to be dominated by a few large producers and distributors. Dehydrated garlic accounts for 75 percent of all the garlic Americans eat. It is harvested mechanically and processed for salsas, spaghetti sauces, salad dressings and a thousand other food products. The remaining 25 percent is split between seed garlic, also harvested mechanically and sold for planting, and the fresh garlic market.
Fresh garlic is different: It is handpicked and sold in whole bulbs. And this is where New Mexico and every other state in the Union comes into the picture: Somewhere in your own state, whether it’s Alaska, Texas or New York, there are farmers, often on tiny plots of land, growing and harvesting magnificently fresh garlic. Plump, firm, and flavorful, these locally grown bulbs are to the bleached white heads of supermarket garlic as luscious summer tomatoes are to hard, tasteless winter specimens.
Globalization and the peculiar trade it engenders has a lot to do with the garlic most of us wind up buying at the supermarket: In 2004. we exported $21 million of garlic to NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico—and we imported $53 million of garlic. About 75 percent of those imports came from China, which grows three-quarters of the world’s garlic. The rest came from Argentina (7 percent) and—yes—Mexico (14 percent). Even though a stiff tariff was imposed on fresh Chinese garlic imports in 1994 after the Fresh Garlic Producers Association filed an anti-dumping petition, China still dominates, largely due to loopholes in the legislation.
Americans began to eat lot more garlic during the 1980’s and 1990’s, partly because we liked the taste and partly because we discovered it was good for us. According to the USDA, per capita consumption of garlic almost tripled from 1.3 pounds in 1990 to 3.3 pounds in 1999. In the same vein, domestic garlic production rose from 200 million pounds in 1990 to 740 million pounds in 1999.
But wait. By 2004, there was a mysterious decline: Consumption fell to 2.6 pounds per capita and production to 525 million pounds. Why would this happen, especially when we’re eating spicier foods?
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three part article on garlic. Coming soon in Part 2: Garlic’s Rollercoaster History; What Give Garlic its Bite?; plus more on Stanley Crawford and his garlic.
A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm by Stanley Crawford (University of New Mexico Press, 1992) can be found at www.amazon.com.