1960s Archive

The Garlic War

Originally Published February 1964
"The Garlic War" arrived "over the transom" in the time-honored manner of unsolicited manuscripts. The editors recognized Annie Proulx's comic sensibility and storytelling gifts and published the piece. Years later, after winning the 1994 Pulitzer for The Shipping News, Proulx revealed that this was her first published short story.

Sometime back in the early '30s my uncle Hubert finished his internship at one of the smaller hospitals in Poughkeepsie, New York, took a pretty young wife, Sophia, and set up practice in his mother-in-law's rambling house on Garvin Street. His mother-in-law, whom everybody called Auntie Bella, was a formidable woman. She was, in the first place, large—not merely plump, not fat only, but tall, large-boned, and heavy-fleshed. She had a booming bass voice with which she sounded all her opinions to anyone who would listen. If no one would, she told her marvelous tales of the evil eye and of the time her cousin Giuseppe was robbed by bandits to the four cats who were constantly stalking in and out of the kitchen. The cats were swollen with pride and with tasty tidbits that Auntie Bella was always feeding them—a little dab of chicken cooked in a red sauce, for instance. "Here, cat … good, no?" And the cat would purr, gobble down the last shred, and stare greedily into the empty dish.

The cats were not the only fortunate ones to taste Auntie Bella's savory sauces and delicate pastries. All day long she urged cups of steaming minestrone on the mailman, tortoni on the milkman, a golden slice of sweet bread, pandoro di Verona, on the grocery delivery boy, little anise cookies on any child within hailing range. And when mealtime finally arrived, the table, far from being diminished by her generous taste-givings, was laden with so many steaming, fragrant dishes that we could heap our oversize plates full and still not have sampled everything that was on the table.

Uncle hubert was a spare eater, and the sight of those groaning tables thrice daily made him uneasy. In the days when he was courting Sophia, Auntie Bella urged the steaming dishes on him; he would take only a tiny portion, and she would snatch the ladle from his reluctant hand and heap his plate ever higher, until the lake of spaghetti sauce threatened to overflow onto the snowy tablecloth. But Uncle Hubert was a stubborn man, and he lectured Auntie Bella on the dangers of overeating, and the strain on the heart from excess weight. Auntie Bella thundered back at him the longevity tables of her entire family for three generations. She told him all her relatives lived to be at least 87, and any one of the four huge meals a day that they ate made her table look like a snack for gnats. But Hubert ate only as much as he wanted and then sat quietly thinking of the day when he would be married to Sophia and be master in the house; the huge meals would certainly stop. Auntie Bella's thoughts ran along rather different lines. Daily she told the cats how she would fatten Hubert up when he and Sophia were married, and that once he fell under the spell of her rich cooking there would be an end to this quibbling over meals.

The day of the wedding came, and late that evening, as Hubert and his bride were leaving for Niagara Falls, he looked at his mother-in-law in a masterful manner and said, "When Sophia and I come back, we will eat simple, small meals, and there will be no rich sauces. And one thing more: There is never, never to be any garlic in my food. I have my patients to think of, and I can't go about reeking of garlic. So, no garlic!" And he glared sternly at Auntie Bella, who was standing slack-jawed at this traitorous speech.

The moment the door closed behind Hubert and Sophia, Auntie Bella melted into a river of laughter that sent the cats flying behind the velvet drapes. No garlic! Garlic was more often used in Auntie's Bella's kitchen than salt—than water, even. To do without garlic? Impossible! Impossible and mad.

The great purple strings of fragrant garlic that festooned Auntie Bella's kitchen were more than seasoning and piquant touches to otherwise dull sauces. Garlic was the mainstay, the rock upon which her cooking was founded. And then, too, any fool knew the other properties of garlic. Garlic was a sovereign remedy for all sorts of ailments; garlic warded off the evil eye; garlic at the foot of the bed of a newly wedded couple ensured that the firstborn would be a son. With this thought, Auntie Bella was off to tie garlic cloves to the springs of her new son-in-law's marriage bed. Underneath so he wouldn't see them.

Two weeks later Hubert and Sophia were back. Hubert, after a hasty peck at the garlic-flavored cheek of his mother-in-law, went at once to his office, where he arranged all the waiting-room chairs, hung a fresh sign in his window announcing visiting hours, and retired to his inner office to smoke a cigar and await the patients. Dusk was falling when Sophia came down and told him that dinner was ready. As they started up the stairway toward the living quarters, the fragrant aroma of garlic smote Hubert's nostrils, and his eyes flashed wildly for a moment, but he drew a deep breath and went into the dining room. The table was loaded more than usual, for was this not a homecoming feast? Platters of fried zucchini, spinach pie, ravioli, pompano, and garmugia (a beef stew) crowded each other. Huge bowls of eggplant with parmesan cheese, red spaghetti sauce, white clam sauce, and shrimp buongustaio sent up a heavy mist of steam. And over the table like a palpable cloud hung the heavy, pervasive aroma of garlic. Auntie Bella had outdone herself. Hubert took several shallow breaths and abruptly excused himself. The front door quivered as it slammed, and Sophia burst into tears. Auntie Bella sat her daughter down at the table, filled her plate, and commanded her to eat, but Sophia cried salty tears into the zucchini for ten minutes.

Then they both heard the door downstairs open and close. Footsteps came up the stairway. Hubert appeared in the doorway, slightly flushed and bearing in his hand a limp white package wrapped in butcher's paper. He went directly to the kitchen, found a frying pan, and brought it to Auntie Bella. "I will have these two chops cooked without garlic, if you please." Muttering, Auntie Bella cooked the chops, spitefully burning one of them on the edge, but Uncle Hubert ate them with relish and recommended them to his two dining companions. Aside from the crunching of chop bones and the salty plop of tears into the zucchini, dinner was a silent affair, for Auntie Bella sat deep in thought, plotting. The idea of garlicless meals filled her with a despair that soon gave way to the urge to battle. Waving an invisible banner painted with garlic cloves, she decided on a daring plan.

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