Roasted garlic wrapped in foil.
Credit: Sarah Crowley
personal essay

Roasted Garlic Is the ’90s Trend That Never Should’ve Gone Away

published Jan 26, 2021
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In the early ’90s, Chicago was in the throes of a restaurant boom. Charlie Trotter was gaining fame for his namesake fine-dining restaurant, sourcing freshwater crabs from Japan and rare produce from farms in Oregon to create tasting menus unlike anything the city had seen before. Other restaurateurs partnered with big-deal chefs and even celebrities like Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey to open kitschy themed restaurants all over downtown, dazzling diners with wood-burning oven pizza and paella made table-side. 

But after visiting Chicago to move my older brother into his college dorm, my mother came home raving about something much simpler: the roasted garlic she’d had at Bistro 110, a French spot downtown. Along with her glass of Chardonnay, Mom was presented with a bread basket with a whole head of roasted garlic. She slathered baguette slices with butter and roasted garlic and swooned; she would have made that her dinner if she could have gotten away with it. It was a memorable bite — one she’d go back for many times over the years. 

After I moved to Chicago, I was lucky enough to join her in this beloved snack when she came to visit. We’d sit at a table, marveling at how surprisingly mild and sweet the roasted garlic tasted when it blended with the butter, and how fun it was to dig the soft garlic out of the skins. We laughed about how much nicer Chicago restaurants were compared to the chains that populated my hometown dining scene; you couldn’t get a bread basket like this back home. Eating this simple snack made me feel sophisticated — like I had taken the first step towards the life I wanted to live, one filled with fancy bites at trendy restaurants.

Roasted garlic was a small detail that resonated with people; it was “extra,” decades before the term hit the vernacular. It felt fancy and special — especially at a time when the bread basket was often cheap filler, before the selection of breads and spreads we get today became the norm. The small offering became iconic for Bistro 110, and restaurants like Club Lucky in Chicago and Prezzo in Miami followed their lead, offering roasted garlic spread on pizzas or spread on focaccia. Meanwhile, home cooks got in on the action too, when cookbooks like The Silver Palate suggested tossing pasta with roasted garlic sauce. The chef at Bistro 110 printed the recipe on postcards, spawning a run on clay garlic roasters (the greatest space-wasters of all single-use kitchen gadgets!) at the Williams-Sonoma a block away. It was … a thing.

Bistro 110 closed in 2011 after an impressive 25-year run, long after roasted garlic had stopped being exciting and most people had tossed their garlic roasters after they started to collect dust in the back of a cabinet. And, distracted by a few thousand more restaurant meals and food trends (kale! Harissa!), I forgot about it too — along with those early days of dining out in the city that has become my home. It was only by chance that I recalled that decades-old food fad a few months ago when a friend dropped off a dozen heads of garlic after she confused cloves with heads on her grocery delivery order. Looking at the pile of garlic on my counter, I decided to see if it held up.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

Armed with this recipe for roasting garlic, I drizzled a few heads with oil, wrapped them in foil, and popped them into the oven. It took all of two minutes of prep, and soon my apartment was filled with aromas I can only describe as garlicky heaven. I made sure I had half a loaf of sourdough and softened butter on hand. 

An hour-and-a-half later, I sat down to eat my garlic, bread, and butter — along with a nice Beaujolais, to fully channel that late-afternoon French-bistro vibe. I slathered a piece of bread with butter. Then I squeezed a clove of roasted garlic out of its gloriously sticky, papery skin, smooshed it onto the buttery bread, and popped it into my mouth.

It was perfection. The 90 minutes in the oven had transformed the garlic into something mellow, sweet, rich, and savory. I ate a slice, then another, decided I was done, and then ate a few more pieces just to be sure. I considered making it my dinner, just as my mother had all those years ago.

As I sat there, eating slice after slice of this positively lovely treat, I wondered why it had been so long since I had roasted garlic. I remembered how special it once seemed to me, and how ridiculous it is to abandon something you truly enjoy eating just because it’s no longer in vogue. Eating is as old as humanity itself. It’s absurd to declare pesto and green goddess dressing “outdated” when they’ve never stopped being delicious. Why judge each other when we can eat bread and roasted garlic instead?

I wrapped up the remaining garlic and stashed it in the fridge, plotting another bread-and-garlic meal that week. But in the meantime, I found even more opportunities to return to that foil packet. When the beef stew I made the next day needed a little oomph, I pulled out a couple of cloves, mashed them with a fork and stirred them into the pot. Boom — instant umami and depth of flavor. A couple of nights later, I tossed a few roasted cloves along with butter and cream into a bowl of mashed potatoes that suddenly didn’t feel like a weeknight side anymore. And when I decided at the last minute that we needed something to go with our spaghetti Bolognese, those roasted cloves made it possible to whip up garlic bread in minutes, saving me from the seemingly endless wait for the garlic to cook when you are thinking about garlic bread.

Now, I always keep a few heads of roasted garlic in the freezer, peeled and ready to go. They transform a can of white beans into a tasty dip and mayonnaise into aïoli, and yes, make a delicious spread perfect for slathering on warm bread. I’ll still never have room for a garlic roaster, but this is an old food trend worth revisiting.