5,000 tickets were printed for the first Gilroy Garlic Festival. When 15,000 people turned up, volunteers had to sell the tickets, collect them, and rush them back to the admissions booth so they could be sold again. It was 1979. Garlic was still mildly subversive and decidedly lower-class.
In 2009, attendance at the 31st Gilroy Garlic Festival topped 108,000. They came, they saw, but mostly, they ate, devouring garlic bread, fries, scampi, pasta, corn, quesadillas, sausage, escargot, kebobs, almonds, ice cream, and even garlic watermelon. Garlic has come a long way. Even the once garlic-averse Japanese have acquired a taste for it (and have their own garlic festival in Takk0-Machi.)
Gilroy’s garlic festival was the brainchild of Dr. Rudy Melone who moved there to run a community college. A Bronx-raised Italian, Melone had grown up eating loads of garlic and was astounded to see that Gilroy’s locals viewed their chief export with more embarrassment than pride. He’d read about a garlic festival held in Arleux, a tiny French town of 2,500, that welcomed 80,000 revelers annually. Arleux even called itself “the garlic capital of the world.” Nonsense, he thought, knowing that Gilroy’s enormous production made it a vastly more credible garlic capital. Passing through, humorist Will Rogers had even proclaimed Gilroy “the one town in America where you can marinate a steak by hanging it on a clothesline.”
Melone wrote to the mayor of Arleux asking how they ran their festival. The mayor wrote back in French of course and sent a mimeographed festival program and a ten-foot-long loaf of garlic bread that Melone’s wife remembers stunk up the garage.
Initially, the festival idea was shot down by civic leaders, so Melone went directly to the garlic farmers, immediately getting Gilroy’s largest garlic grower, Don Christopher on board. Christopher had founded Christopher Ranch in 1956 because he was sick of the family business — cultivating prunes. What started as a 10-acre operation is today, a 5,000-acre facility that produces more than 60 million pounds of garlic annually. A media event cooked up by Melone and Christopher, with the aid of gregarious local chef Val Filice, was such a success that the city pols had no choice but to reluctantly sign on.
The man in charge of printing the festival poster was so sure that Gilroy’s first garlic festival would also be its last that he didn’t put a date on it. Morning fog gave way to sunshine on the first Friday in August and the alliophiles started coming, and kept coming, descending on Gilroy in droves. As the crowd swelled, local women frantically cooked up vats of pasta in a house near the festival grounds. Filice, a dead-ringer for Anthony Quinn as Zorba, manned the grills at Gourmet Alley. When they started to run low on seafood, his thunderous voice rang out, ordering men to drive down to Monterey to get more prawns and squid. And when they ran out of beer, the beer chairman called Budweiser and said, “Heck, forget the kegs. Start sending us the trucks.”
In 2009, I joined the revelers at the 31st anniversary of Gilroy’s folksy, fun, and family-friendly festival. I tasted garlic ice cream, something that was, to borrow from author David Foster Wallace, a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. I savored one of over 10,000 servings of Gilroy Garlic Fries and relished a platter from the over 1,500 pounds of Garlic Scampi cooked up by the festival’s Pyro Chefs in Gourmet Alley. The Pyro Chefs are famous for their spectacular grill flame-ups — which send flames rocketing five feet in the air.
I watched the finals of the Recipe Contest Cook-off in which the winning recipe was a sweet surprise: Spicy Garlic Butter Cookies with Garlic Goat Cheese and Honey. Winner Andrew Barth donned the coveted garlic crown and pocketed $1,000. I learned how to braid garlic and watched, uncomfortably, as onlookers cheered on the four Mexican workers in the Garlic Topping Contest. Topping is the process of trimming the roots and stalks from the dried garlic and the contest looked more like a Migrant Worker Off than family fun. (Imagine, spectators cheering while slaves pick cotton and you get the idea.) After the contest, onlookers were invited to swarm down and gather up as much garlic as they could carry and wrest away from others. Two Asian women proved mightier than their slight appearance suggested. They walked away with at least fifty bulbs — each.
I walked away with a Gilroy Garlic Festival apron which I won because I was the only person in the stadium during the cook-off who knew that the end of the Indian proverb, “Garlic is as Good as ___” was “Ten Mothers,” not “Sex,” “Chocolate,” or “Anything Else.”
Whenever he was asked about his initial reaction to the garlic festival, Filice, who ran Gourmet Alley until his death in 2007, said, “I thought they were nuts.” Today, there are dozens of garlic festivals around the United States and Canada.