Midrash on Garlic

Numbers 11: 4-6

Nothing lingers like the memory of garlic. Unlike the sacred onion bulb, garlic’s cloven head makes no fetish of translucent unity. Let it flower & the knee-high stem turns a question mark into a fat exclamation point, finally splitting into a cluster of rampant commas. Enough to give pause to the sternest oracle.

So in the book of Numbers, when the newly constituted nation of ragged refugees gets fed up with an unvarying diet of wonder bread, the “flesh” they’re said to lust after really means a servant’s dream of a full larder: fish & cucumbers, the melons & the leeks & the onions. But it’s garlic that breaks the heart.

Ah, Egypt, with your whips & supermarkets! Ah garlic . . . Better than the hot breath of the Nameless on our necks. His lovers bathe in the dust like flightless birds with lice. Perhaps we’d rather have been a nation of garlic eaters—if anyone had asked.

In mouthwatering recollection the dozen or so cloves, clothed in their separate skins, join their nipples around a calf-white stalk. So let it be written in the history of visions, as if it had come to pass. But the common tongue remembers the shape of its milk teeth: teeth of the wild garlic unclenched to whistle, calling from every watered cleft, as Miriam showed us. She who wouldn’t let us bow our heads: that all the people may become prophets, stems of green fire unfurling around every upturned face.


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