Gilroy Garlic Festival Glory

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A garlic harvest cures in baskets, awaiting Gilroy’s annual onslaught of garlic eaters.
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A flaming calimari sauce always draws an audience.
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A bird’s-eye view of the garlic festival grounds and its beautiful California setting.
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A chummy crowd of people try their hands at garlic braiding.
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A topper trims and snips bulbs, working against the clock.
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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.

Festival food

And everywhere you look is the bulb itself in its many forms, including chopped, roasted, sautéed, and marinated. Though the smell of garlic pervades almost the entire region, it is most intense at Gourmet Alley, the heart of this garlic get-together. This popular spot is where people gather to see a bevy of teams preparing the garlic ­dishes and to sample the food. In addition to cooking and serving teams, there are garlic and parsley chopping teams and runner teams who replenish foodstuffs.

The rough-and-ready kitchen tent where the locals perform their food show is a place of camaraderie, high spirits, and easy cooperation. While the aroma of garlic tantalizes the hungry hordes, the teams dish up more than 3,000 pounds of garlic, five tons of red and green peppers, four tons of pasta, two tons of mushrooms and appropriate amounts of olive oil, wine and cheese.

Among the most popular foods served each year are Pasta with Pesto, Festival Calamari, and Pepper Steak Sandwiches. Even people who don’t eat calamari wait around to watch the ­display as flames leap from a deep wok and the team members yell out in unison “Fire in the hole!” Of all the hot jobs though, the hottest must be that of the Pepper Steak team, which grills four and a half tons of meat over six tons of charcoal.

In the Alley and at the many food booths throughout the grounds, participants can get their fill of garlic with such enticements as garlic potato chips, garlic shrimp cocktails, Thai egg rolls with garlic and artichokes marinated with garlic. They can dig into Louisiana-style platters, redolent with garlic, of oysters, shrimp, jambalaya, red beans and rice; garlic barbecued ribs with garlic coleslaw; chicken sandwiches with garlic and rosemary; garlic chili or kraut hot dogs with garlic fries; or the vegetarian combo plate of french-fried artichokes, mushrooms, and zucchini, each food fully dressed with the indispensable allium. For snacking, there are roasted garlic cloves with balsamic vinegar, feta and French bread; garlic vegetable, beef, chicken or shrimp kabobs; even garlic sushi.

Only for dessert can festival-goers take a break from garlic to choose from strawberry shortcake, key lime pie, fruit freezes, gelatos and sorbets. Or they can go with the flow and have vanilla or chocolate garlic ice cream!

The Great Garlic Cook-off is a spectator sport that whets appetites. In 1996, there were 650 applicants from the United States and several nations who hoped to be chosen for eight finalist spots. The finalists are flown to Gilroy to inhale that garlic inspiration in the air and to vie for prize money of $1,000 for first place, $500 for second or $300 for third.

The contestants, many of whom have the haggard look of sleeplessness, work on adrenaline and garlic fumes on the open stage kitchen in view of 1,000 seated fans. And, as we found out last year, it was no easy job to be judges when so much is on the line. Television crews scrutinized every frown of concentration from the half-dozen judges and watched our every bite. Interviewers caught up in Olympic madness pushed mikes in our faces to ask, “Any favorites emerging yet?”

When the winning dish is chosen–based on flavor, use of garlic, and presentation–the Recipe Contest Committee members and their chair, Peggy Fortino, distribute bite-sized servings of all the entries.

Garlic gigs

The Garlic Queen reigns. The 1996 queen, Christin Reichmuth, could often be found with a bouquet of “stinking roses” (one common epithet for garlic) or performing her garlic speech, a good-natured parody of Lucille Ball hawking a super-garlic cure-all called “VitameataGARLImin”. Just beyond the stage is Garlic Grove, where experts answer garlic questions on everything from cultivation to consumption, cooking to storage. The twelve-member GG Marathoners may be racing, whooping, chanting or twirling garlic braids. Kids have their own festival section with action-packed activities and crafts. When the heat seems overpowering, festival-goers can walk into a rain room for a refreshing splash.

One of the festival’s highlights–the garlic topping contest–happens midday. The toppers perform the same impressive work that they do in the fields around Gilroy to produce harvests of more than 50 million pounds of garlic: they trim the roots and cut the stems just above the bulbs, working at top speed against the clock. While spectators cheer, the contestants snip tops faster than the eye can follow and the garlic chaff flies through the air. Judges weigh the baskets of topped garlic after five minutes. The winner, who has the heaviest basket, collects a check and a kiss from the Garlic Queen.

Demonstrations and instructions in the art of garlic braiding are also popular events. Garlic wreaths, braids, and bags are for sale, all made from garlic that has been out of the ground less than a month, just long enough to cure it properly for storage. The garlic is still fresh, pungent and sticky with juice.

Evolution of an event

Among the most popular of the many chefs on stage is the local team of Rudy Melone and his wife, Gloria. Rudy, who is credited with being the father of the festival, first mentioned the idea as a fund-raiser for the Gilroy Rotarians in 1979. He had read of such a festival in Arleux, France, which called itself “Garlic Capital of the World”–words to raise Gilroyan hackles. Rudy determined that Gilroy produced more garlic than Arleux and met growers in a coffee shop to persuade them to donate garlic for 3,000 people. That first year, the expected 3,000 turned to 20,000, tickets were recycled and resold, and Gilroy was on the road to glory.

Money raised from sales of tickets, Gourmet Alley food, official souvenirs, and the festival cookbooks published annually is given to charities chosen by the volunteer groups that work the festival. Last year $192,000 was raised and donated to 153 charitable organizations. Since its inception, the festival has raised more than four million dollars for causes ranging from soccer clubs and art leagues to wildlife conservation and the developmentally disabled.

The festival association has standing committees of volunteers who meet throughout the year, contributing thousands of hours to ensure that the festival continues. The festival is sponsored by Gilroy growers, who are among the largest shippers of fresh garlic in the United States, and other local companies. More than 4000 townsfolk contributed time to last year’s festival.

Late on the last day of the festival, these legions of volunteers can be seen breaking down the stages, fences, and booths and dismantling the entire festival superstructure to return the ground to the town park. Garlic smells mingle with dust in the air, and we hear echoes of the chants, “Go for the garlic!” and “Fire in the hole!”

Susan Belsinger and Carolyn Dille are authors of The Garlic Book (Interweave Press, 1995) and many other cookbooks. Susan lives in Brookeville, Maryland, and Carolyn in San Jose, California.

The1997 Gilroy Garlic Festival will be held July 25, 26, and 27. For more information, contact the Gilroy Visitor’s Bureau, 7471 Monterey St., Gilroy, CA 95020; or call (408) 842-6437 or (800) 490-4329. 

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