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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.

Citing a 2007 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Parker-Pope wrote, "The power to boost hydrogen sulfide production may help explain why a garlic-rich diet appears to protect against various cancers, including breast, prostate and colon cancers."

Freshly crushed garlic provides the optimum allicin. Garlic's health benefits start to dwindle "when it gets heated up," said Aaron. As well, pre-peeled garlic is not as mighty as freshly peeled. "Two days after the skin is off, the allicin diminishes."

Garlic power and garlic salt have minimal allicin, and he calls garlic capsules "pretty useless because they're made from processed garlic."

He also questions any research on the health benefits of garlic that uses anything but the fresh, raw stuff.

But what about the off-putting odor of this powerful herb? Aaron recommends countering garlic breath with fresh parsley, but even so, he admits that the essence can linger. "Sometimes I'd walk into class and my students would say, &‘Geez, professor, you've been eating garlic again.'"

Garlic doesn't work its alleged magic on all bodies. "Some people get gas and feel bloated after eating it or break out from rubbing it on the skin. We all have different body chemistry," said Aaron. He adds a caveat to his personal testimonials on the merits of garlic: "All I can say is that it works for me personally in certain ways."

Following the advice of a garlic researcher friend, Aaron treated a fungus on his toenails with crushed garlic soaked in vodka. "Disappeared in two weeks."

The friend is David Mirelman, a biochemist with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel who is widely published in scientific journals. He and Aaron met at an international conference in Oklahoma called "Garlic Is Life," which is also the title of Aaron's first book on garlic, published in 1994.

Mirelman refers to the molecule allicin as "nature's antibiotic." In an e-mail, he said his research has found that allicin "has superb antibacterial, antifungal and anti-parasitic activity."It also reduces arterial plaque and has beneficial effects on lowering blood pressure, lowering blood lipids as it lowers triglycerides and increases HDL cholesterol (the good one).

He believes it also reduces blood glucose and "interestingly, it also prevents obesity."

As for his friend, Mirelman said Aaron is "a living example of the beneficiary effects of allicin."

He eats three cloves a day, the equivalent of about 15 milligrams of allicin a day, which surely lowers his blood pressure and his blood lipids and glucose, Mirelman said.

"His arteries should be quite free from fatty plaque, so chances are he will not get atherosclerosis, and at this rate he may live until at least 100 and remain alert and agile. The downside is that he is probably a little smelly, so his lady friends have to get use to it or join him in eating raw garlic, too."

<i>Susan Swartz is a freelance writer and author based in Sonoma County. Contact her at susan@juicytomatoes.com.</i>

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