Cheek: Thoughts on a malodorous bulb and a festival

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Gilroyans love their garlic and they love their festival devoted
to the pungent herb. And Friday marks the start of the 33rd annual
Gilroy Garlic Festival, America’s most famous
– and one of its biggest – food fests.
Gilroyans love their garlic and they love their festival devoted to the pungent herb. And Friday marks the start of the 33rd annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, America’s most famous – and one of its biggest – food fests.

The festival has been a dazzling success for the South Valley. The world is familiar with the name Gilroy and its tie to garlic gastronomy. “Foodies” come to the city’s annual culinary carnival from all around the world. But it’s worth remembering that in 1979, when Dr. Rudy Melone, then president of Gavilan Community College, dreamed up the notion for the festival – after reading a San Francisco Chronicle article about a garlic soup gala in Arleux, France – and proposed it to the Gilroy Rotary as a fundraising endeavor, folks called him crazy. His wild idea would never work. Who the heck would come to Gilroy for … for garlic, of all things?

For many Americans three decades ago who were raised on a basic meat and potato diet, garlic was considered something exotic – and smelly. Only foreigners ate garlic. And yet, Melone got it right. People did come to that first festival. Call it a case of good timing. The culinary tastes of America were starting to evolve, thanks to chefs like Alice Waters in Berkeley, “the mother of American food” who promoted the idea of adding more variety and ethnicity to our American cookery.

That first garlic festival surpassed all expectations. Organizers didn’t print enough tickets, so as soon as people handed their tickets to the gatekeepers, runners brought them back to the front sales booths to resell. The only thing that flopped at the first garlic festival was the garlic soup. Summer time weather was too scorching for such hot liquid fare.

I’ve been to the Gilroy Garlic Festival on several occasions and the question that keeps going through my mind is: why the heck are folks so obsessed with a malodorous bulb? Why would more than 100,000 visitors come each year to Christmas Hill Park to brave the heat, the dust and the crowds and spend their time and hard-earned money at a festival devoted to an herb?

To be fair, I ask this question about all food festivals, including the Mushroom Mardi Gras in Morgan Hill. I have a hunch the answer is that human beings are social animals hard-wired to connect with each other over food. Birthday parties, weddings, funerals, celebrations of successes, neighborhood barbecues – you name it, humans need nutriments to socially connect with each other. Food and music (another staple of every food festival) provides us with a means of emotionally bonding with each other.

Perhaps this food-socializing nexus goes back to the hunt-and-gather days of the ancestors of our species. The men of the tribe went out with spears and arrows to bring down a mammoth to nourish the tribe with meat. The women went to gather nuts and berries. Today, instead of going out into the dangerous wilderness to find nourishment, we modern folks take a quick trip to an air-conditioned Safeway, Nob Hill or Trader Joe’s to “hunt” and “gather” our foods, pushing our shopping carts past the victuals all neatly packaged and stocked on the shelves. Even at the supermarket, there’s often an element of socializing as we meet people we know there and park our carts on the side of the aisle to chat.

Getting back to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, I’m pretty sure this isn’t a reason people travel here from all over the globe to celebrate the “stinking rose,” but herbalists have long touted its medicinal worth. In 1858, the scientist Louis Pasteur experimented on garlic and discovered that it’s highly effective in killing bacteria. One milligram of raw garlic juice is the equivalent of 600 milligrams of penicillin, he discovered. In World War II, the British and Russian armies ran out of penicillin, and so used diluted garlic solutions as an antiseptic to disinfect open wounds.

Even the ancients saw garlic is good for medical treatment. Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine, used garlic to treat patients with cancerous tumors. The herb has even been proclaimed to be useful for treating colds, the flu, heart disease, high cholesterol, baldness, whooping cough, acne, warts, toothaches, cholera, dysentery, smallpox, tetanus, tuberculosis, typhoid fevers and intestinal worms. Garlic might also be nature’s Viagra. Some claim it’s a powerful aphrodisiac. No wonder ancient Greek and Roman brides carried a bouquet of garlic and other herbs, instead of flowers, on their wedding day.

The potential amour-inducing attribute of garlic most likely is not what brought more than 3 million visitors to the Gilroy Garlic Festival over the last 33 years. But hey, if it improves your love life and makes food taste delicious at the same time, who’s gonna complain?

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