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.
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.
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.
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