I sent my mother a head of black garlic for her birthday.
It was a calculated risk. Flowers or jewelry or concert tickets would have been much safer, but she’s had flowers and jewelry and concert tickets. She’d never had black garlic.
But the real reason it was a chancy gift was the unspoken challenge it carried in its faintly licorice scented, sweetly savory head.
“Try something new,” it sang. “Break out of the box!”
I left the Midwest, and my parents’ farm, 18 years ago for New York. Within days of my arrival, not only had I learned the brutality of real traffic – not just a guy on a tractor – but I discovered new food. Bagels and lox and pastrami and Thai noodles and mole sauce and fried plantains and slices of pizza so wide you had to fold them over to keep them from flopping everywhere. For a Sunday roast and potatoes girl who grew up thinking gravy was its own food group and mayonnaise on white bread was the most amazing after school snack in the world, this was culinary chaos.
I got used to it, as you do, and it wasn’t long before I was ordering my sushi with a side of steamed edamame and a glass of Riesling. But the real breakthrough came when I started cooking with the good stuff. Whole vanilla beans and fat caper berries and Portobello mushroom caps and fresh basil. The day I brought home my first tiny glass jar of saffron, I cleared a spot for it on the shelf over the sink, under the light that introduced it with a fanfare every time I flipped the switch. Ta DA! Saffron!
My mother found my cooking adventures a bit puzzling. When I’d complain about the price of something she’d never even heard of, the sympathy was in short supply. One day I was telling her about a stew I’d made, and how much easier garlic was to peel since I’d learned to smash the clove with the side of my knife.
“I’ve never used fresh garlic,” she said. I couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d told me she stopped bathing.
“No,” she said, in a tone that hinted I’d best not continue to convey that much shock. “I use garlic powder or garlic salt. Never needed fresh.”
I was about to launch into all the reasons she should be more adventurous in the kitchen, all that she’s missing out on by not trying new things. Then I thought back to her kitchen, to Saturday morning cinnamon rolls and Easter hams and homemade rhubarb jam and the marshmallow-studded canned sweet potatoes that defined every Thanksgiving. I remembered English muffin pizzas and pigs in a blanket and onion dip and Tang. It was the menu of my childhood. I could still taste it, and it tasted like home.
Did it matter? Did it matter that Mom never used fresh garlic and thought cilantro was a Mexican folk group? Not really. There’s no such thing as a right or wrong way to cook, as long as it tastes good. In a country where we don’t have to wait in line for bread can we, in good conscience, turn our noses up at anything?
But still, I wanted to share with her some of what I’d discovered, out here, beyond the yellow brick road.
I asked the store owner about the black garlic. She explained its fermentation, its flavor and that it’s so sweet you can just mash it up and spread it on bread.
I bought two bulbs. I stuck one into Mom’s birthday box, which was ready to go into the mail. “Here,” I wrote on a note I attached. “I just discovered this. I’ve never had it – let’s try it together.”
A few days later, I got a phone call. She loved it. As it turned out, so did I.