By the time February rolls around, there's definitely something in the air. In Israel, red cyclamen and poppies burst into bloom, and Tu B'Shevat celebrants whisper innuendoes about the sap rising in the trees. Then, come Valentine's Day, a massive assault of chocolates, truffles, even chile peppers attempt to seduce the rest of the world.
But every week for centuries traditional Jews have relied on a potent aphrodisiac on the Shabbat table: way before there was Viagra, there was garlic.
It all began with Ezra. After the Babylonian exile, he wanted to rebuild the Jewish population of Israel. Garlic, he said, "promotes love and arouses desire," so he commanded the Jews to eat it on Friday nights to ensure the mitzvah of conjugal pleasure would take place.
Not all the ancients agreed that garlic was an aid to lovemaking. The Roman poet Horace believed that eating garlic would drive a lover to refuse a kiss and retreat to the far side of the bed. Of course, the potential problem is easily solved if both lovers partake equally of the "stinking rose" or ingest a copious quantity of fresh parsley after indulging.
Friday evenings when I was growing up, you could smell the garlic as soon as the elevator reached the third floor. By the time you walked out on the sixth, where we lived, an astute nose could delineate several layers of the perfume: raw garlic cloves in the pickles and red peppers, roasted ones blanketing the prime ribs or breast of veal, sautéed nuggets in the spinach. And there were hillocks of braised garlic intended to disguise the chicken that had given its all to the matzoh ball soup. My mother would prepare it "gedempte"-slow-braised with tomatoes, onions, and enough garlic to make it nearly edible. After all, as Morley Safer has said "with enough garlic, you can eat the New York Times."
It wasn't a sexy meal, no, but it was delicious. And perhaps it did provide spice to our political discussions, since garlic, as an anonymous wag declared, "is the ketchup of intellectuals."
There are scads of garlicky recipes for Friday night dinners. Just some of the Ashkenazi choices alone include: gently roasted garlic cloves puréed with good olive oil as a spread for fresh challah; knobel (garlic) borscht (meat and beet soup with fresh garlic); chicken fricassee with garlicky meatballs; carnatzlach (garlicky chopped beef sausages); Romanian eggplant spread.
Will these foods improve your love life? According to a study some years ago, couples who enjoyed the most sex cooked with garlic-as well as cayenne, onions, basil, and rosemary.
Besides, there are always the intellectual benefits...