Post and Photos by Gina Scialabba and Sara Bloomberg
This year marked the 35th anniversary of the ultimate summer food extravaganza— Gilroy’s Garlic Festival. It was a three-day event packed with…well, food. Lots of food. Specifically, garlic. 82 tons of fresh California garlic to be precise. The aroma was overwhelming and inviting at the same time.
Known as the “Garlic Capital of the World,” Gilroy ships 70 million pounds of this pungent little bulb worldwide. It’s actually a species of onion that humans have used for a variety of purposes for over 7000 years.
Garlic has evoked extreme reactions throughout history. People either passionately love it or venomously hate it.
A restaurant on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco pays tribute to everything garlic, even in its own name—The Stinking Rose—and the bulb makes a cameo appearance in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath.”
It’s known for causing bad breath, warding off blood-thirsty vampires and is believed to be a natural mosquito repellent. Every July 26-28 the sleepy town of Gilroy, about 30 miles south of San Jose, comes alive. People of all ages celebrate garlic’s unique flavor.
And celebrate they did. The entire community geared up for this festival put on by the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, a non-profit organization intended to support non-profit groups and projects in Gilroy.
“It started in 1979 as a way to give back to our community,” Treasurer Mike Wanzong said. The first festival was held on a small farm. It was expected to only draw about 5000 visitors. 15,000 people ended up coming.
“It was so popular, they ran out of food on the first day,” he said. Since then, the festival has continued to evolve over the years, serving everything from deep-fried rattlesnake with garlic to garlic ice cream, even garlic alligator jerky.
The majority of festival proceeds goes toward a wide range of community groups. Over its 35 years, the festival has given back over $9.7 million to sports teams, scout troops, hospitals and local choirs.
Wanzong explains the reason why the festival remains so relevant after nearly four decades is the tireless efforts of volunteers.
“Without a group of thousands of dedicated local people taking pride in what they do, we wouldn’t be here. This is truly an example of a community working together to make magic,” he said.
It takes 4000 volunteers to make it happen. Each volunteer donates their time and chooses where the funds will go. This strategy really gives community members a stake in the festival’s success.
If you’ve been to this garlicky party before, you know no two years are the same. 2013 was no exception. With over 100,000 visitors expected by the end of the weekend, there was plenty to be excited about. The festivities included cooking demonstrations, garlic-themed merchandise and even an appearance on Sunday by ABC-TV’s Chef Carla Hall from the hit television show, The Chew.
Friday marked the inaugural “Garlic Bowl,” an intercollegiate cooking jamboree matching executive chefs from San Jose State; University of California, Berkeley and Fresno State. Each team cooked in 85 degree weather, sweat dripping down their faces as they hoped to impress a group of seasoned judges and win the grand prize: a large garlic trophy, a $5000 scholarship and of course, as emcee Jason Gronlund, Vice President of Smokey Bones Bar & Fire Grill said, “kitchen bragging rights.”
The rules were simple. Each team had to prepare two dishes from scratch using a minimum of six cloves of garlic. They were given one hour from start to finish with an audience of over 200 cheering fans looking on from the bleachers.
Tensions ran high. Temperatures ran hot. And the pressure was on.
San Jose State Chef Michele Rogers and Sous Chef Carlos Duque were ambitious. They went all out with two dishes: “Surf” and “Turf.”
The “Surf” included six key ingredients: poached lobster, brioche, bacon jam, roasted garlic, herb salad and garlic chips.
The “Turf” had seven key ingredients anchored by sliced Kobe beef, puff pastry, roasted garlic, lots of mushrooms, sautéed baby spinach, frisee salad and chicken liver paté.
“It’s basically a deconstructed Beef Wellington,” Duque said.
The tag-team duo of Chef Mary Ferrer and Ida Shen from U.C. Berkeley were not to be outdone.
They wowed judges with their bouillabaisse-inspired, garlic infused seared halibut and summer vegetable hash creation. It included fresh halibut, summer squash, fennel and a garlic nage (a combination of chicken broth, white wine and, of course, garlic).
Their St. Joseph’s Pastry with a Garlic Almond Brittle was the showstopper. Unfortunately, they didn’t plate it in time for judging.
“This is a dish I would have been talking about afterward,” said judge Ward Bushee, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. “It would’ve been a very strong contender.”
But in the end, Fresno State stole the show. Chefs Erik Debaude, originally from Paris, France and Sous Chef Bryan Kramer created a dish that blew the judges away.
They made stuffed crepes with a tarragon and lavender garlic cream sauce.
One of the judges, Beat Giger, Master Chef and Director of Special Events at Pebble Beach Resorts was very impressed.
“I would be proud to serve this dish at Pebble Beach,” he said.
Next, the competition took to the pit. The barbecue pit. The “Pigs in the Park with Garlic” pork rib competition set four local teams against each other: Bad Boyz of BBQ, Pig Night Run, Catering by Five and Big Ed’s Buzzard BBQ. They competed for the grand prize of $500 and, of course, major bragging rights. Each team was comprised of pit masters who have been grillin’ up pork ribs for years. Each had their own special, “secret” recipe. So secret, in fact, we were unable to obtain a copy of ingredients used in each dish.
Aside from the cooking competition, festival-goers had their pick from over 60 food vendors, including Gourmet Alley, a place where gastronomic explorers could choose culinary garlic delights prepared by master chefs. This year, “Zesty Garlic Fried Calamari” was a popular choice. You could also find everything from alligator jerky to main-staple garlic bread and even garlic wine.
Just around the corner from Gourmet Alley, crowds of people watched as cooks performed their garlic-inspired mastery at the Demonstration Booth on opening day. Volunteers Rich Janisch and Scott Povio have 34 years of combined experience at the festival. They aren’t professional chefs, but they don’t need to be. They love food. They love garlic and they love cooking.
“This is the greatest weekend of the year,” Janisch said. “Better than Christmas.”