Smooth garlic sailing

Pyro chef Austin Ragan does a flame-up with some calamari Sunday in Gourmet alley at the Garlic Festival.

Mild weather and agreeable crowds made the 34th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival a hit among both volunteers and visitors, setting an easygoing and family-friendly atmosphere for 100,240 garlic-loving attendees.

With attendance down about 8 percent from last year, and high temperatures in the upper 80s, overall operations at the festival went exceptionally smooth, said Hugh Davis, Garlic Festival president. Arrests were low as well, aside from a handful of drunk-in-public arrests, police did not run into any major incidents.

“It’s been a really calm, quiet year,” said Gilroy Police Officer Jeff Roccaforte as the crowd began to taper off on Sunday evening.

While “calm” and “quiet” are accurate descriptions, the festival itself retained its usual lively energy, drawing in a mix of locals and far-away visitors alike, giving the event a down-home feel with a touch of the exotic.

A couple from Melbourne, Australia were driving north on U.S. 101 on Saturday halfway through a three-week California road trip, when they stopped in Gilroy to crash for the evening.

Never having heard of Gilroy before, Grant Carter, 32, and Angela Bernaldo, 26, were besieged by the smell of garlic the moment they stepped out of their car.

“I was like, wow, what is that smell?” Carter said. So Sunday morning, they followed their noses (and some signs) to the Garlic Festival.

“I thought it would be five booths and a guy in an onion suit or something,” Carter said. “I was wrong.”

The couple, decked out in matching Garlic Festival 2012 T-shirts, said they had “eaten their way” through a good part of Sunday morning.

“There’s really nothing like this back home,” Carter said.

On Friday, the festival was honored with the presence of Kanako Daibo, the Garlic Lady of Takko-Machi, Gilroy’s sister city in Japan. Daibo was one of the first to try this year’s first batch of famous calamari ceremonially cooked over huge open flames.

“It’s delicious,” she said of the garlicky-flavored squid 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 she is looking forward to the most about the Garlic Festival, she blushed.

“More calamari,” she said.

Revenue for the 2012 festival topped $1.9 million, slightly down  from last year, reported President Davis Monday. But hundreds of thousands of dollars will still be funneled to local charities when all is said and done. Although a number hadn’t been reached by Monday afternoon, beer sales benefiting the Chamber of Commerce was consistent with recent years, said Susan Valenta, Chamber of Commerce president. The organization served about 420 kegs of beer, which sits right in the middle of the 410-430 keg average for the last couple of years.

Despite lower attendance this year, the Gilroy Foundation broke a sales record at their wine booth, bringing in just over $30,000, according to Donna Pray, the foundation’s executive director.

Many visitors were struck by the friendliness of the volunteers running the festival,  making the Garlic Festival stand out from other run-of-the-mill events for more reasons than just delicious food.

A couple from San Jose, Lydia and Malcomu Berhane, relaxed on a shady hay bale, cooling off from the midday sun with a frozen lemonade.

“It is so amazing to see kids volunteering, everywhere from the parking lot to behind booths. It’s like the whole town is a part of this,” Lydia, 39, said.

The camaraderie flowed freely. Ladies looking for some friendly lip-lock – or maybe just a peck on the cheek – were met with a generous offer from 30-year-old Mario Salerno of Livermore, who taped a makeshift sign on his shirt that read “Garlic kisses, 5 cents.”

Scrapping together supplies from booths at Garlic City Mercantile, Salerno found what he needed to tout his smoochy sign.

“I’ve gotten about 10 kisses so far,” he said, laughing.

“You’ve got to hang out by the beer garden, you’d probably get more business over there,” said his friend, Jessica Rowland, 31, of Livermore.

One woman who did take Salerno up on his garlic-kiss offer was Whitney Pintello, the winner of the Garlic Festival’s poster contest.

“Will you take our picture?” Pintello asked, handing her phone to Rowland as she posed for the kiss-picture, popping one foot into the air behind her.

Dressed in an outfit her 14-year-old daughter picked – a cherry-patterned sun dress, a straw hat decked out with plastic fruit, and brightly colored plastic handmade earrings – the bubbly Pintello bantered with customers at Garlic City Mercantile, who waited in line for her to sign prints of her richly textured garlic bulb poster as a garlicky souvenir.

Meanwhile, at the Garlic Grove, where festival-goers braided garlic bulbs and took home free garlic growing kits, artist Rosie Echelmeyer, 72 of Marin County, sifted through a mound of garlic husks, hunting for bulb scraps for her garlic embellished sun hats she sells at her festival booth each year.

Echelmeyer said doesn’t attend many festivals, but because the Garlic Festival isn’t a typical asphalt-and-fair-food event, she marks her calendar every year.  

“I love this festival, because the people are happy, they’re eating great food and it’s all on grass,” Echelmeyer said.

Gilroy locals and Garlic Festival veterans Norman and Charleen Heredia sat in the shade on Sunday afternoon with their 17-year-old daughter Emily, trying to make room in their stomachs after consuming garlic ice cream, garlic fries and garlic oysters, so they could hit up Gourmet Alley once more before they headed home.

As a 12-time festival attendee, Norman thought this year’s festival was smoother and more family-friendly than ever.

“I’ve got to give props to police,” he said. “This festival has become much more of a family event than a place for adults coming to drink and fight.”

Ten-year Garlic Festival veterans from San Diego, Reuben Thornton, 71, and Earnestine Thornton showed up Friday morning, eager to eat and play.

“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 came prepared with a big 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.

She 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!”

Behind the scenes at Gourmet Alley, the Gilroy Elks club cooked about 3,000 pounds of spaghetti in steel vats for the pasta con pesto dish, as they have every year for the past 32 years.

The hundreds of volunteer hours the Elks put into the festival every year are all worth it for the money the festival contributes to the Elks’ community causes, said Phil Quast  of the Gilroy Elks, stepping away from a boiling vat of spaghetti.

“The key to the work that we all put in back here,” he said, motioning to about 50 busy workers in the Gourmet Alley tent, “is remembering why we are here.”

At about 7 p.m. on Sunday, Davis rode up on his Harley Davidson motorcycle to extinguish the flaming garlic bulb that had been ceremonially lit by Mayor Al Pinheiro just two days earlier.

On Friday, the festival had kicked off with Davis thrusting his fist in the air after he lit the first stove pilot on Gourmet Alley, the crowd dancing and cheering as the first batch of the famous festival calamari lit into flames over the open stove.

The mood on Sunday night was much calmer. As the sun hung lower in the sky, volunteers in blue shirts could be found hugging, high-fiving, taking photos around that famous garlic bulb and congratulating each other on another great year.

Davis paused to reflect on the weekend, his face showing signs of both extreme exhaustion and exhilaration in the same moment.

“I’m a little bummed it’s over,” he said. “But it was a great year. And that’s not because of me, but because of the 3,999 other people that made this event happen.”

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