Some people have well-loved Christmas traditions or annual
summer vacations. I, on the other hand, have the Garlic
Some people have well-loved Christmas traditions or annual summer vacations. I, on the other hand, have the Garlic Festival. I’ve attended every year since I was 12 – I haven’t missed one. This was not a goal I set, it just sort of happened. At first, I thought it was a pretty embarrassing statistic, certainly not something to brag about. But lately – as I’ve begun to feel somewhat like the Cal Ripken of the Garlic Festival – it’s a fact that I’ve grown rather proud of. It’s special because there aren’t many people that have a Gilroy.

The friendships, support and sense of community are inspiring. They exist day in and day out – the Festival is simply the time of year when the rest of the world gets to see them. Through the Festival, people have come to know my hometown. And the Garlic Capital leaves a lasting impression.

My sister and I checked out the first Festival with my parents in 1979. I remember relaxing beneath expansive trees, savoring my first pepper steak sandwich. From that moment, I was hooked. Within a few years I was stamping hands at Christmas Hill and serving garlic bread in the Gilroy High Girls Basketball booth. It was a great way to earn money for church or school groups. But just as importantly, the festival was a halfway point, an event that brought classmates and friends together for a midsummer catch-up session. You could see who was still dating, who’d broken up and who was having a summer fling.

Each summer had its own drama, its own story. Guys without shirts donned cutoff shorts and spray bottles. Girls shrieked during cat fights. The Festival was quite the social scene. In our minds we were gracious hosts, and thrilled to be inviting thousands of strangers into our backyard.

By college, the Festival took on a new dimension. Not only was it an event that reunited Gilroy High grads, but college friends would attend with some of us locals to see what all the hype was about. After letting them in on how to sneak in on various back roads and where to park off Miller Avenue, we’d make our way to Gourmet Alley, talking about Gilroy and pointing out ex-boyfriends. But the college friends didn’t have much interest in the trip down memory lane; they simply wanted to eat, listen to some music, and then get out of the sun. Although they didn’t seem to have the full appreciation for our Festival, at least it was another group turned on to the delights of pasta con pesto and calamari.

As my fellow Gilroyans and I entered the working world, our lives became more detached. But year after year the Garlic Festival was our common ground. Although many of us relocated – including a move to Seattle for me – we’d still bump into each other in a food line or at the amphitheater. Sometimes I’d return with a Seattlite in tow (this year I’m bringing three). The Northwesterners relished the sunshine, good food and the opportunity to explore the Golden State. And those that haven’t made the trip yet still look forward to this time of year – they hover around my cubicle, waiting for me to return with a giant bag of Garlic Kettle Corn and stories of overindulgence.

The Festival is a celebration of delicious food and community spirit. It’s become a ritual for many that didn’t even grow up in Gilroy. For those of us that did, it’s a time to be proud. The entire town works together to pull off an extraordinary party – and for me it always feels like it’s saying “welcome home.” I’m thankful that the tradition continues, and that I have my midsummer getaway to look forward to. Though I may not be buttering up the bread, I still hit the girls basketball booth every year and tell friends “This is MY booth. I worked here …” and it makes me smile – grateful for the memories I have and the ones yet to be created.

Kira Hagenbuch Monica, the daughter of former and longtime Dispatch columnist Huck Hagenbuch wrote this tribute to the festival spirit.

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