Full Garlic Press

Blissed out and ready to re-enter the world after a week at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, I returned to Washington Friday evening with just enough time to repack, shower and take a cat nap. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, I would board yet another plane, this time bound for California.

Because of the time difference, I arrived in Oakland to start my morning all over again. Bags in tow, I met my co-pilot and we immediately hit Highway 101, heading south about 70 miles. Our destination was Gilroy, a small town of 41,000, with a pungent claim to fame.

Walking garlic
A garlic elf makes his rounds at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. (Kim O'Donnel)

We were in the heart of garlic country, home to the famed Christopher Ranch and the Gilroy Garlic Festival. In its 28th year, the three-day affair is a major event on the food festival circuit, yielding an average attendance of 120,000.

In addition to the standard components of a food festival -- corn dogs, goofy souvenirs, live music, long lines for beer -- this ingredient-centric extravaganza includes plenty of events and eating options to celebrate the beloved bulb.

"Gourmet Alley" is where you queue up to get your garlic groove on. On the menu: Garlic sausage and peppers on a hoagie roll, shrimp done scampi style, an Asian-style chicken-veg noodle-y stir fry, sautéed mushrooms, pepper steak sandwich, penne with pesto, and of course, garlic bread.

Everything was intensely garlicky but well above average for festival fare. It wasn't long before the inside of our mouths were tingling from the garlicky impact, a gustatory first for me.

"It's not as repulsive as one might imagine [to eat so much garlic]" said my co-pilot, as he polished off another mound of scampi. No, it's not. In fact, I felt drunk with garlic, almost giddy, and I wondered out loud if there were any scientific reports on potential hallucinogenic properties of eating this much garlic.

We moved on to the more esoteric offerings, including garlic lollipops, pickled garlic, garlic jelly and garlic ice cream, which was being scooped up for free to anyone crazy enough to try the stuff. I had to sample at least one lick's worth, and that was more than enough. Served in a cake-like cone, the ice cream has a soft-serv consistency, with a flavor that was reminiscent of burnt garlic. Its utility is something we're still figuring out.

When we weren't chowing down in garlicky earnest (and looking for breath mints), we sauntered over to the main stage for the final results of the "Great Gilroy Garlic Cook-Off." All morning, eight contestants from around the country frantically prepared their garlicky creations for a panel of judges that included Margo True, food editor at Sunset Magazine.

With their original recipes that included a minimum of 6 cloves of garlic, the cooks were vying for a $1,000 cash prize and a very Roman-like crown of garlic.

The big money went to Jennifer Malfas, of Orland Park, Ill., for her "Oh Baby! Prosciutto Wrapped, Roasted Garlic, Feta and Rosemary Stuffed Bellas." (translation: Portobello mushroom tops stuffed with stuff). Second prize went to Michaela Rosenthal, of Woodland Hills, Calif., for her "Lobster medallion/chipotle butter corn cake stacks with roasted garlic-lime beurre blanc and roasted jalapeno and red pepper relish." (Try saying that three times fast.)

And what's a garlic festival without a garlic queen? If you're thinking this is the stuff of high school proms, think again. There is a serious pageant earlier in the year, complete with evening gown and talent competition, plus the requisite garlic speech. This year's queen is Sheena Torres, a graduate of Pepperdine University.

Sheena Torres
Gilroy Garlic Queen Sheena Torres impersonating Food TV host Rachael Ray. (Kim O'Donnel)

Part of Torres's winning combination is an impersonation of Food TV host Rachael Ray. Donning a wig and throwing around expressions like "Yummo" and "EVOO," Torres had the crowd licking up her routine.

With a garlic infusion unlike any in my lifetime, I was ready to get back on the road. But before I bid my goodbyes, I needed to know one more thing: Does Gilroy really smell like garlic, like people say, or is it the stuff of urban legend? The aromatic rumors are true, says Bill Christopher, managing partner of Christopher Ranch and son of founder and garlic guru Don Christopher. Between the dehydrating and roasting, the garlicky perfume is sometimes detected as far away as San Jose, an olfactory journey of 20 miles.

With garlic breath in overdrive, we piled into the car and promptly stopped for gas. And a tin of Altoids.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 31, 2006; 2:58 AM ET Travel
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Thanks for the report! I'm glad you had a great time. It makes me want to go again. By the way, I grew up there, and I can't smell the garlic, even when I go back to visit. My brain has trained itself to ignore it!

Posted by: GarlicGirl | July 31, 2006 10:51 AM

Oh, I believe that is "Mr. Garlic". I can't recall him ever being referred to as an elf...

Posted by: GarlicGirl | July 31, 2006 10:53 AM

Hi Kim,

Following up on your earlier story about most of the garlic in the US coming from China. When you were in Gilroy, did you find out what's up with the domestic garlic supply and if there will be more available next year? Also, I'm wondering if you could enlist the help of your loyal readers to come up with a list of DC-MD-VA venues for buying quality domestic garlic - I just can't stomach the idea of buying Chinese garlic (pun intended!).


Posted by: Carrie | July 31, 2006 11:56 AM

Carrie, stay tuned for tomorrow's blog, when I share the highlights of my conversation with Bill and Don Christopher of Christopher Ranch. Thanks for your interest.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 31, 2006 12:15 PM

Isn't there a garlic festival somewhere around here? (And by 'around here' I mean somewhere in the Maryland-DC-VA-WVA area.) Thanks for the heads up about garlic ice cream, by the way. Did you get any garlic tiramisu? I do enjoy that.

Posted by: NoVa Girl | July 31, 2006 4:13 PM

I too was at the Gilroy Garlic festival this Sunday, my first time. The place was packed and a whole lot of fun. They even had a

The garlic ice cream is very wierd. My aunt overheard one of the people who works for ConAgra foods, who provided the free garlic ice cream, say they toned down the garlic a lot this year. I am glad they did. There was plenty in there. I was amused by the stand that was selling garlic ice cream in half a cantelope for $4.00, just $.50 more than w/o the fruit.

Posted by: Julia | July 31, 2006 7:39 PM

My husband also swears by the "garlic buzz," which he first got from drinking the garlic soda I'd made for a garlic-infused potluck dinner with friends.

Posted by: PollyG | August 2, 2006 2:02 PM

You really can't smell the garlic in San Jose anymore. I grew up in San Jose, and there were many mornings when I would be walking to school and smell garlic in the air.

I too was at the festival, and I really didn't find the garlic ice cream that bad.

Posted by: Chris | August 3, 2006 12:41 PM

Will Rogers once described Gilroy as "the only town in America where you can marinate a steak just by hanging it out on the clothesline."

Posted by: C. | August 3, 2006 2:20 PM

We live in South San Jose, and we still can smell garlic at times, especially when the wind is blowing it north! It smells awesome!

Posted by: Rochelle | August 4, 2006 5:59 AM

Yes, there used to be a garlic festival years ago in Rose Haven Maryland on the shores of the Chesapeake that was started by Whitey Schmidt --the Crab Guru. He moved to Crisfield and it's now done by a couple in Lower Marlboro. The neat thing is, all the garlic that's used, is grown in Maryland.

Posted by: JoeBlow | August 4, 2006 2:37 PM

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