The year I turned 8, my family moved from the urbanity of Anaheim, California, up to the Monterey Bay area, building a house on a hill over the next few years that overlooked the fertile Pajaro Valley. Standing on this hill, looking west to the sunset (sometimes catching the emerald flash of the sun extinguishing in the ocean), I could tell which way the wind was blowing by the scent in the air. The town we lived in was aptly called Aromas, after the now mostly dried up sulphur springs in the area. Occasionally there would be the whiff of rotten egg. Now, however, the smells depended on the ebb and flow of the wind and atmospheric pressure: from the west, was the weedy sea air; the north, the decomposing lettuce and cauliflower churned under fields to fertilise the next crop; the south, an aromatic mixture of the eucalyptus and pine trees that covered the hills; and pulled from the arid east of the Santa Clara Valley, the mustiness of mushrooms, or the slight nostril burn of garlic.
In the last week of July, that garlic smell can even overpower the winds, as several tons of garlic cloves are cooked in Gilroy’s Garlic Festival.
The mild climate and rich soil of the Santa Clara Valley is a perfect combination for garlic growing, but Gilroy has also become one of the world bases for processing garlic, either into powder as a flavouring agent, chopped for easy addition to recipes, added to olive oil, or for use in medicines. Garlic is good for you in almost every way (although some care must be taken when cooking not to char it, as it becomes carcinogenic), and the more you have, the more you benefit, boosting cold and virus immunity and helping your heart.
While all food festival origins can be traced back to Harvest celebrations during the Autumnal Equinox, the one in Gilroy was inspired by a local hearing of the popularity of a garlic themed fair in Arleux, France. He figured he could do the same in Gilroy. He and a local chef put on a lunch for garlic farmers, merchants and the media, and the variety convinced them all to try it out in 1979. They leased the local park, shipped in garlic, steak, calamari and several kegs of beer, hired a few bands and expected a couple thousand attendees. Buoyed in part by free radio promotion from AM rock station KFRC and the quirky country and folk station KPIG, attendance was so great that tickets were recycled. More squid, fish and steak was raced in from the Monterey Bay, and beer trucks diverted to the area. It’s been going strong ever since.
The greatest appeal of the three day festival is excellent food, all cooked with garlic as an ingredient in either copious or just-right amounts. Calamari, chiles, pasta, stir-frys, bread (over ten thousand loaves sold each year), mushrooms… if you can think of it, it’s there in abundance, with many inexpensive choices. And even if you haven’t thought of it, someone else has: Garlic ice cream (I don’t care for it, although as a topping with ice shavings it’s quite good), beer (surprisingly refreshing, with a rather loud gastric aftermath resounding many hours later), wine, licorice, and pie!
A recipe contest and cook-off takes place each year, with people sending in recipes, finalists picked, who then prepare and cook their recipe during the festival for judging. The only stipulation is that each recipe must include the equivalent of six cloves of fresh garlic. Winning recipes include cookies, tarts and seafood soup. Professional chefs also perform cook-off contests, inspired by chile competitions from the early years of the festival.
One of the important aspects of the original festival, which has continued to this day, is fundraising for local charities and community organisations. Many of those manning stalls, cleaning, attending parking, selling and making food, and giving away complimentary
garlic ice cream, are volunteering for an hourly wage that is paid to a charity of their choice. In fact, although at first an unsaid civic duty instilled at the beginning, putting much of its profits back into the community set Gilroy apart from most American food festivals.
It’s a dusty park, and by mid-day, gets a bit hot. The music is your typical covers band with folk jiving like it’s the coolest thing when they are just beer-buzzed. You might catch someone with cloves braided into their hair. Although parking is free, you’ll be parked way far away and crammed into a shuttle to the park. But it’s all worth it for that first chomp into garlic stir fried calamari in pita bread, washed down with some brew, and nostrils flaring from the sizzling scent of the stinking rose.
Half Pint of Mayo (use recipes from the node, or laze out with pre-made)
1 to several more cloves of fresh garlic
Slice and chop the cloves (or grate with the small star side on your multi cheese grater utensil) and add to mayo. Salt as needed. Stir for one minute. Set in fridge for mayo to cool and garlic absorb.
Best served with one or two boiled Globe Artichokes, possibly grown near Castroville, California, the Artichoke ‘Capital of the World’, a few miles from Gilroy.