Ail Caesar

Ail Caesar

My father hated garlic. Hated it with an almost superstitious passion. In other ways he was a very adventurous eater, cooked rich, hot curries from recipes gathered in India during World War II, liked to pour whisky onto his corn flakes, occasionally made and bottled his own chutneys and pickled walnuts, relished a raunchy game bird oozing dark blood and adored Gentleman’s Relish (the nearest thing to the ancient Roman garum sociorum then available in England). But garlic was the anathema. It may have had something to do with the fact that he was an actor, and it is an old tradition of the theatre for a Juliet to eat garlic before the matinée if she happens to hate the man playing Romeo (or vice versa). But I think it went deeper than that. Garlic, uncooked and injudiciously used, is such an inharmonious ingredient. It’s the schoolyard bully, the tuba in the string quartet, a slash of orange graffiti on a cathedral door. You can’t ignore it. Like some malevolent virus, it leaps from the fork and burrows into the taste buds, laughing at Listerine. I know it’s supposed to be good for you, but that’s a medieval fallacy born of the fact that garlic-eaters were shunned, even by rats, and therefore less likely to catch the plague. And I’m now beginning to think that an aversion to the odorous little bulb may be genetic because I, like my dear old long-departed dad, have discovered a garlic antipathy in myself.

All this came to an unpeeled head this week—and for a variety of reasons. First, there was an otherwise lovely dinner at a small French restaurant that began with an amuse gueule so potently, pungently and unapologetically impregnated with allium sativum that it lingered on the palate right through to dessert. “Is this a joke?” I gasped. “Have they blown my critic’s cover and are now taking revenge for some ancient slight?” “It’s like the night you reviewed Armenian Kitchen,” said my wife, who had been given a different, mint-flavoured bonne bouche. “You’re sleeping on the sofa.” Then there was the gala before the National Magazine Awards on Friday. The caterers were passing round canapés heady with garlic. They actually tasted quite good but the cumulative effect among hundreds of tightly packed journalists, all with lots and lots to say, was breathtaking. Lastly came a small flurry of coincidences around the subject of Caesar salads—but this deserves a new paragraph.

The world is divided neatly into those who come to praise the Caesar and those who would bury it once and for all in the Mariana Trench. Amongst the former is a reader who called Toronto Life last week asking where she could find a traditional, authentic Caesar salad, made and tossed tableside by a properly dressed maître d’. The answer is Tom Jones steak house, but that’s not the point. Her query proves that the Caesar still has a constituency. Set against it are two unrelated testimonials from leading avant-garde chefs—Claudio Aprile of Senses and Michael Pataran, now at Escabeche in the Prince of Wales hotel, Niagara-on-the-Lake. “I actually quit a job once because the owners insisted I put Caesar salad on the menu,” Aprile told me recenty. “I just won’t do it.” Pataran was just as emphatic: “I will never ever serve a Caesar salad in my restaurant. I won’t! Even though we sometimes get complaint cards from customers at the hotel asking why there isn’t a Caesar salad on the menu.”

You see? Feelings run high. Is it the tasteless scrunch of the iceberg that gets these chefs so worked up? Or the sticky slime of an unemulsified egg? It can’t be the croutons or the dear little anchovy. I bet it’s because of the garlic. Even rubbing a single clove once around the bowl is enough. That’s all it takes. Game over.

There is only one thing garlic is good for—and this will have occurred to anyone who watched the England-Paraguay match last week. Albion’s brave squad, dressed in virginal white, were preyed upon and persecuted by the dapper but diminutive referee, a man who wears his hair slicked back like Eddie Munster and is known in FIFA circles as The Little Vampire. England’s tall and ungainly striker, Peter Crouch, was his especial victim. The new England uniform no longer shows the cross of St. George, which would normally be enough to send a vampire ref hissing and cursing into the shadows. I’d like to suggest that Crouchy and the lads go out for a Caesar salad the night before their next match. Or, better yet, an Armenian meal. That should keep the bugger at bay.