Garlic Festival President Hugh Davis thrust his fist in the air after he lit the first stove pilot on Gourmet Alley, whipping the crowd into a frenzy of cheers and whistles. Ladles of garlic and calamari lit up in flames on cast iron pans while volunteers danced to pulsing hip-hop beats.
If the kickoff is any foretelling of how the weekend will go, then the 34th annual 2012 Garlic Festival will be a spirited one.
The morning had begun quiet enough. Overcast and chilly, Mayor Al Pinheiro opened the ceremonial passing of the torch by the giant flaming garlic bulb near the entrance of the park, giving thanks to all the volunteers who made the festival possible.
A line of Garlic Festival who’s-who, including longtime volunteers, the Garlic Festival queen and princesses, and honorary representatives from France, Portugal and Japan, relayed the torch all the way to Gourmet Alley, the music building as the torch reached Gerry Foysie dressed as “Mr. Garlic.” When Foysie passed the torch to Davis, the party had started.
The pyro-chefs of Gourmet Alley worked fast as the fire engulfed their pans, making their first official batch of the festival’s famed marinara calamari.
Kanako Daibo, the Garlic Lady of Takko-Machi, Gilroy’s sister city in Japan, was one of the first to taste this year’s garlicky squid.
“It’s delicious,” she said in Japanese through a translator. Daibo is the winner of this year’s garlic queen pageant in Takko-Machi, and her trip to Gilroy for the Garlic Festival made her crown even more special.
Dressed in a pink satin floral floor-length gown, Daibo was all smiles as festival attendees lined up to take photos with her.
When asked what Daibo is looking forward to the most about the Garlic Festival, she blushed.
“More calamari,” she said.
Daibo isn’t alone. From a sample pool of about 20 festival-goers, more than half said that the calamari was the garlicky treat they most look forward to year after year. (A close second was the pepper steak sandwiches.)
The hair on pyro-chef volunteer Kevin O’Keefe’s arm is nearly nonexistent, from years of cooking that beloved calamari over open flames. He’s proud of his ability to flip a scalding pan of seafood over a vigorous fire – but that aside, it’s the camaraderie among the Gourmet Alley cooks that keeps O’Keefe coming back.
“I’ve been doing this 15 years. And I’m one of the newer guys,” O’Keefe said. He motioned to the cooking crew of at least 20 others. “We have a great time. The Garlic Festival brings us together year after year. A lot of us don’t see each other most of the year, but the festival, it renews our friendships.”
After the festival’s kick-off, the clouds cleared, the sun peaked and the day began to heat up, but only mildly so, giving out-of-towners a sampling of a perfect Gilroy summer day – 75 degrees, sunny, with a slight breeze.
Longtime festival goers and first-timers alike looked forward to the weekend.
Ten-year Garlic Festival veterans Reuben Thornton, 71, and Earnestine Thornton (who did not want her age published), traveled from San Diego with their friends who had never been to the festival.
“It’s fun to watch people experience it for the first time,” Reuben said.
“Don’t we look prepared? I’ve got my fold-up chair, my hat, my coat just in case. I’m ready to go,” Earnestine said.
Earnestine also brought her appetite, but remedied it quickly with a bowl of shrimp scampi and a pepper steak sandwich and pasta con pesto combo plate first thing in the morning.
Her first-timer friends, Cristina Clark, 63, and Herman Clark, 78, were delighted with the festival so far.
“What a beautiful place,” Cristina said. “It’s fun to be around so many people. What a great place to relax.”
Meanwhile, Earnestine scraped the last bit out of her cup of shrimp scampi over her pasta con pesto, (her favorite way to eat it) making sure that not one chunk of garlic at the bottom of the scampi bowl went to waste.
“What?” she said to Reuben when he laughed at her. “You want the garlic! That’s why we came here!”