Heirloom Garlic's Gentle Lesson
heir·loom noun ˈer-ˌlüm.
1. piece of property that descends to the heir as an inseparable part of an inheritance of real property.
2. something of special value handed on from one generation to another.
I have often considered what legacy or material items I would leave my daughter and grandchildren someday. Would it be the home, business and possessions Lisa and I have? Would Alexandra appreciate my collection of 2,500 cookbooks? Jewelry from my grandparents and parents? My Easy Bake Oven? Sometimes you just have to sit back and think about those things but in reality, materialistic things don’t mean that much to me. Yes, I love my house and am proud of my business and property but there’s more to life than materialistic objects. Is there something I can leave that will benefit my family and help them appreciate and respect the gift but not think about value in terms of money?
In late summer I hosted a unique Heirloom Garlic Experience at Jasper’s. Like all my “Experiences,” I featured many courses of Italian cuisine, highlighting one specific ingredient at each dinner. For this specific dinner, I chose heirloom garlic because 10 years ago, my Slow Food Kansas City friend Lonnie Williams introduced me to a local producer of heirloom garlic. Gary Verhaeghe, from Coffee Creek Ranch in Kansas, actually raises heirloom garlic and local honey but the honey is a whole other story.
Heirloom garlic? Is there really such a thing, you might wonder? Of course, just like many other fruits, herbs, flowers and vegetables, heirloom seeds and bulbs have been passed down for generations from one family to another, with some being named after family members, cities of origin, politicians, queens and kings and even different eras.
Garlic itself is one of the oldest crops known to mankind, dating back more than 5,000 years when Egyptian, Chinese and Indian cultures discovered the many uses for garlic—including medicinal purposes. Garlic is mentioned in the Bible and clay models have been found in Egyptian tombs. Roman soldiers were fed garlic to make them courageous while Egyptians used garlic to embalm. As a member of the lily family, there are more than 300 garlic varietals, the Purple Italian being one of the most widely planted.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that American foodies discovered garlic and today, more than 250 million pounds of garlic are consumed in the U.S. each year.
Today’s chefs have discovered that when you roast garlic, it becomes quite mellow. Although most people call a piece of garlic a “clove,” it is actually a “toe.” One toe of garlic raw is stronger than a whole bulb of roasted garlic. Whether you call it Bronx Vanilla or Italian Perfume, garlic is loved by many and enjoyed in almost all cuisines.
During the Heirloom Garlic Experience, Gary shared his passion and knowledge about garlic. He explained to the sold-out audience that there are two types of garlic: Longneck and Softneck. Hardnecks produce bulbs with many small cloves and is usually planted in the fall. Gary brought several sample of his garlic, along with planting directions, each bulb labeled with a small typed written name attached. Guests were asked to take home the bulbs, and were encouraged to plant them in early October. Gary also stayed after dinner and talked with the enthusiasts individually, holding up different bulbs of garlic, each with its own story, often referring to a large garlic poster he had brought with him, expressing his love for such a simple crop but one that means so much to him.
Gary also admitted that this was not his job or a means of income but rather his passion. The bulbs were something he could pass down to his children and grandchildren in the hope that someday they would do the same, remembering their grandfather, carrying on his legacy and enjoying the fruit of the land.
That is when it occurred to me what I wanted to leave my daughter and hopefully grandchildren someday: an heirloom seed or plant. And then it really hit me: my brother Leonard has a fig tree in his yard that was from my Papa Leonardo Mirabile’s home in South Kansas City. It was brought over to America, hidden in a suitcase, back in 1950.
In early September the tree had more than 100 figs ready to be enjoyed by Leonard’s grandchildren. Just watching Mariana, my great niece, savor the fig with a big smile, answered my question.
I decided to ask Leonard for a cutting from the fig tree, so I could carry on the tradition and preserve an heirloom for my family.
I will plant the cutting in my backyard, raise it like a child, nurture it in the summer, wrap it in tar paper and straw in the winter to keep it warm, and in the spring, unwrap it each year and await the buds that will grow which I can share with family and friends.
Thank you Gary Verhaeghe, for sharing with me your knowledge of garlic, the definition of heirloom and the meaning of passion. I am forever indebted. Maybe someday, I can share some figs with you.
Jasper’s Heirloom Garlic & Beans
• 16 oz. white beans (cooked in can)
• 2-3 cloves heirloom garlic
• Sea salt to taste
• Fresh rosemary leaves
• Red pepper flakes to taste
• 8 oz. extra-virgin olive oil
Place beans in food processor. Add garlic, sea salt, pepper and rosemary. Puree. Add olive oil a little at a time until all is blended. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Serve with crostini as an appetizer or as a spread on your favorite sandwich.