Gilroy Garlic Festival Glory

Celebrate the growth, harvest, uses and taste of garlic with recipes and workshops at the annual summer Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California.

| June/July 1997

  • A garlic harvest cures in baskets, awaiting Gilroy’s annual onslaught of garlic eaters.
    Photograph by Forrest Doud
  • A flaming calimari sauce always draws an audience.
    A flaming calimari sauce always draws an audience.
  • A bird’s-eye view of the garlic festival grounds and its beautiful California setting.
    Photograph by Forrest Doud
  • A chummy crowd of people try their hands at garlic braiding.
    Photograph by Susan Belsinger
  • A topper trims and snips bulbs, working against the clock.
    Photograph by Susan Belsinger
  • The authors, Susan Belsinger, left, and Carolyn Dille, are regulars at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

Tomato Garlic Panzenella Salad Recipe 

When a town of 30,000 people hosts a three-day party for 150,000, unexpected things are bound to happen. But in Gilroy, California, one immutable fact during the last weekend of July each year is the garlic aroma. It is palpable, held by the early-morning fog, dispersed by the breeze, magnified to a magnificent intensity by the midday sun. We first noticed the garlicky air ten or fifteen miles from the outskirts of this Northern California town. It wafted over the region’s farmland, fruit and nut orchards, landscape nurseries, ­vineyards, truck farms, and garlic fields. The closer we got to Gilroy, the stronger the scent.

People gather here to celebrate this humble yet magical plant, to share the bounty, to have an excuse to eat, drink, party, have fun, play outdoors with family, friends, and strangers. And perhaps to re-enact the ancient gathering and sharing rites of midsummer harvest festivals according to local custom.

We have been part of the festival for four years as guest chefs. Last year we were invited to participate as judges. Over the years we’ve become fond and appreciative of the good folks of Gilroy and the big party they throw every year. Everyone who attends the festival partakes of the shared tribute: they come to the festival because they love garlic, the flavor of it, the smell of it, the romance of it, the very idea. We’ve met people at the festival from Germany and Holland, as well as from our home towns. In Gilroy, the common ground is a passion for garlic.

Though the atmosphere is akin to a county fair, somewhat rustic and agricultural, the festival has an intensity and single-mindedness of its own. The sop­orific amount of garlic consumed, the unparalleled people-watching, and the many entertainments keep the crowd from edging into Dionysian revelries. There are strolling minstrels and mandolin players, clowns, belly dancers, and stage music from country and rock to zydeco. Participants wear trinkets, costumes, and bright clothing. In fact, even with the profusion of tennis shoes and tank tops, we have found it easy to imagine ourselves at a medieval festival.

Many participants are alliophiles (defined as people with unusually large appetites for Allium, the garlic genus), and they express their feelings on hats and T-shirts with slogans such as “It’s Chic to Reek”. Many people make their own garlic outfits; some are marvelously skillful, others funny and funky. One Gilroy resident, Jerry Foisy, whom we called “Mr. Garlic”, runs around each year dressed as a garlic bulb. We have made and collected a drawerful of garlic pins, necklaces and earrings, and we’ve adorned ourselves with rosebud and garlic wreaths.

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