Chester Aaron starts his mornings not with coffee, but with garlic. "Three to four cloves. I just chew them up," he says. If they're one of the hotter varieties, he'll take a little honey.
The Occidental garlic farmer, garlic writer and internationally-known aficionado of the herb trusts garlic to keep his cholesterol in check. He also uses it to treat cuts and bruises, and pulls up one leg of his jeans to show a fading scar on his shin ripped into by a barbed wire.
"All you do is cut the clove to expose the meat inside and rub the moist part on the wound."
He also gargles with it to prevent colds, rubs it on his skin to ward off mosquitoes and credits garlic with curing a nasty foot fungus.
Garlic has been his household remedy since he was a kid in Butler, Pa.
"My Russian father grew garlic in a little garden. If we had a toothache, we chewed garlic. If we had an earache, my father would squish two cloves of garlic in olive oil and put it in a dropper."
At 87, Aaron admits, "it's getting harder to push a wheelbarrow across the field," and that has caused him to cut back his garlic crop from the normal 90 planter boxes to 30 this year. Next year he'll do six.
He still acts and looks more energetic than most people in their ninth decade. He spends three hours every day in the garden — right now he's drying and hanging his harvest — and another three hours at the computer, mostly working on his latest novel.
He taught literature and creative writing at St. Mary's College in Moraga and teaches a class in memoir writing at Santa Rosa Junior College. His autobiographical novel, "About Us," was published in 1967, and he's following it up with a novel called "About Them." The main character started out as a young Jewish boy in the Depression and is now in his 80s. In between, Aaron has written short stories, several young adult novels and three books about garlic.
Were he to do a garlic commercial in the style of a popular beer ad, Aaron might hold up a handful of cloves and purr into the camera, "Stay pungent, my friends."
The medicinal properties of garlic have been touted throughout history. Aaron, who has been profiled in Newsweek and various food magazines, and is frequently interviewed on National Public Radio, likes to point out that Greeks gave their Olympic athletes garlic and Romans gave it to their soldiers for courage and strength.
Aaron was in the U.S. infantry in Europe in World War II, which is when he discovered that "Russian soldiers used garlic for their wounds. We called garlic Russian penicillin."
The healing ingredient in garlic is allicin, a chemical compound that also provides its famous perfume.
According to the online health source WebMD, allicin helps fight infection and may help prevent bacteria-related food poisoning and ward off blood clots and certain cancers.
Garlic is also said to help with urinary tract infections, clear up eczema, lower blood pressure and boost the immune system by increasing the production of interferon and white blood cells.
New York Times health writer Tara Parker-Pope reported on a study showing that garlic boosts the body's natural supply of hydrogen sulfide, which works as an antioxidant and helps relax blood vessels and increase blood flow.