Cookoff; Recipe Fever in America
By Amy Sutherland
Skirting off Highway 101 down an exit ramp to Gilroy, I roll down my window to inhale my first dose of fresh air after a cross-country flight topped off by two hours cooped up in an air-conditioned car. I exhale the stale chill and breathe deeply. My nostrils, mouth, throat, and lungs fill with the earthy aroma of fresh garlic. It is not the sharp kick in the nostrils that a sticky mound of minced garlic can deliver but, rather, the mellow fragrance of a bulb slow-roasted in the oven until the cloves are a dark, luxurious caramel. Yum. My mouth waters as if I'm eating the air. I sniff here and there like a bloodhound, tracking the aroma. It's no use. Every which way I turn my wriggling nose, I scent it.
Other than the appetizing air, nothing stands out immediately about Gilroy. It has the standard gaggle of boxy motels, gas stations with enough tarmac to land a jet, and low-slung, hyper-lit convenience stores along the highway. The effect is Anywhere, America, except for that smell. I pull into the Forest Park Inn, a kind of upscale motel with such niceties as flower gardens and a tennis court, where I ask a teenage clerk with a sleepy but polite manner about the garlic smell. She has lived in Gilroy her whole life, she says, but has never smelled it. She shrugs. "Do you know if there are garlic fields nearby?" I ask. She lazily wags her head no.
Outside under the withering sun, I hustle squint-eyed across the skillet-hot parking lot with the image of a five-story-high bottle of spring water in my head. I feel as if the entire top of my head is about to blister. In the Quick-N-Easy Market, I lean deep into the wall of fridges, pause to soak up the pool-like cool, and snatch a water. At the front counter I ask again about the garlic smell, this time questioning a middle-aged clerk who leans against a wall of cigarette packs with his arms contemplatively crossed over his chest. "It smells when the wind blows west during the harvest," he says in a polite but disinterested monotone.
The harvest. Such a modest term for what is going on nearby. Just south of Gilroy lie the flat, fertile plains of the San Joaquin Valley, the engine of California's powerhouse agriculture. Sandwiched between the scruffy Diablo Range on one side and the comparatively lush Santa Lucia Range on the other, the valley grows at least 80 percent of the entire United States' garlic. The Mediterranean climate, hot and dry in the summer, cool and moist in the winter, is perfect for the bulbs. In rare years rain close to the harvest renders the garlic an unappetizing black, which forces the growers to peel the bulbs at an extra expense. Otherwise, this is as close as it gets to garlic heaven.
Each fall, waxy white cloves are tucked into the dark earth where they gestate for nine months "just like a baby," as Don Christopher of Christopher Ranch, one of the region's largest growers and shippers, likes to say. In May, bent-over fieldworkers rudely rouse the garlic, clipping the roots and pulling the bulbs by hand into the light of day. Exposed, they are left to cure in the sun. They are then loaded onto trucks headed north to Gilroy's processing plants.
Gilroy may be known as the Garlic Capital of the World, but not a whole lot of garlic is actually grown here anymore, not since a white rot fungus silently crept through the fields in the '80s. There are only three hundred acres of garlic left in Gilroy, but the small city remains a major garlic-processing center thanks to the likes of Gilroy Foods and Christopher Ranch. Every day a million and a half papery bulbs bounce through Christopher Ranch alone. "It's like toying to fly east-you always go through Atlanta" is the way one local explains it to me. "If you're a head of garlic, you always go through Gilroy."
Trucks will haul in papery, bouncy bulbs until September, but the harvest celebration can't wait. This weekend the small city will celebrate the 2001 season with a humongous sun-soaked party, the twenty-third annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. Over the next three days some 120,000 visitors, mostly urbanites from the Bay Area, will descend on Gilroy to wolf down all things garlic, from fries to kettle corn. They'll even stand in unfathomably long lines in the 90-degree-plus sun for free garlic ice cream.
The festival sprawls across a public park on the southern edge of Gilroy, hard by paltry Uvas Creek. This year festival organizers are especially proud of the blanket of AstroTurf green sod that covers the park, which feels like freshly laid plush carpet underfoot. It's Friday, the first day of the festival, when the locals converge because the crowd is manageable. Even the lines for the coveted and generous pepper steak sandwiches are short.
I've come for a quick tour of the festival that gave birth to the Great Garlic Cook-Off, which will be held tomorrow. I jump into a golf cart with Cristin Reichmuth, a blond triathlete and former Garlic Festival queen, for a quick tour. As Reichmuth weaves the golf cart around stroller pushers and past the Moon Walk with the kids ricocheting around inside, she tells me this year's festival is BYOB, bring your own breath mint. Our central destination is Gourmet Alley, the heart and stomach of the festival. The alley is a temporary mess hall under a copious tent that churns out the garlic- and butter-laden munchies that the festival is known for: plumb mushrooms groaning with garlic, pesto pasta dotted with pearly garlic bits, bread smothered with garlic, and calamari panfried with its weight in garlic. Not bringing my own breath mints could prove a problem.