At the end of September, my boyfriend and I took a trip down to LA to visit some friends and go to Disneyland. Other than flying, the quickest way to get there from the Bay Area (at the moment) is to drive, and we took the fastest route down I-5.
Getting to I-5 requires driving south down 101 before heading east on Pacheco Pass Road. As we were driving down 101, very early on a Friday morning, my boyfriend made a point to roll down the windows. He asked if I noticed anything about the smell.
Dudes, the air at 7am was thick with the scent of garlic.
In order to get to Pacheco Pass, you have to drive straight through the city of Gilroy, California. I had heard of it in passing, because it’s the very last stop on the commuter train that runs through San Jose, but also because my boyfriend’s mom has mentioned the Garlic Festival in Gilroy several times since we moved here.
But, why? Why does Gilroy have a Garlic Festival? How did something like this come about? How did Gilroy become one of the top producers of garlic in the world?
Gilroy, like so many towns in the Bay Area, was first settled in the early 1800s as a farming community. And, like so many of its neighbors, it saw a boost in population in the wake of the Gold Rush. This increase in population meant a higher demand for grain and fertile land, which contributed not only to the growth of Gilroy, but of the Santa Clara Valley overall, as an agricultural center in the newly minted state of California. Once a stagecoach stop along the road from San Jose to Monterey, Gilroy was incorporated in 1868, and saw more expansion when the railroad arrived in March of 1869, bringing with it commercial growth and opportunity.
When the construction of the transcontinental railroad was completed, many of the displaced Chinese immigrants that had been forcibly brought to construct the railroad moved to Gilroy, diversifying an otherwise Anglo-European town. White farmers and businessmen quickly took advantage of the new arrivals, hiring them to work in grain, tobacco, fruit, and seed industries.
Of course, while the town grew with the help of these Chinese immigrants, in the early 1900s there came a wave of anti-Chinese (and anti-immigrant) sentiment sweeping through California and the rest of the United States. The Chinatown neighborhood of Gilroy suffered a severe fire in the early 1900s, forcing many residents to move to San Francisco or San Jose. In their absence, Japanese immigrants began to move into town. Because they weren’t citizens, they couldn’t legally own land, and became tenant farmers. And they came in the midst of this anti-immigrant wave that was taking hold in early 20th century America, because they wanted a new life here. Interesting how history tends to repeat itself, isn’t it…
There were many farms in Gilroy and the surrounding area because of its moderate climate, which in many ways is very similar to the climate in the southern Mediterranean. Italian immigrants that chose to move west instead of settle in Eastern cities like New York and Boston were able to grow many of the crops they had grown back in Italy, including a staple in Italian cooking: garlic.
But the Italians in Gilroy were really only growing garlic for personal use in home cooking. Even in the late 19th and early 20th century, the scent of garlic as it was being harvested was something many Anglo-Americans thought was, well, gross. Which, come on, how can you feel that way, garlic is AMAZING and should be in everything. (Spoiler alert, I’m Italian)
The first person to start growing garlic commercially was a Japanese immigrant named Kiyoshi Hirasaki. Hirasaki was born on March 1, 1900, in Kumamoto on the island of Kyushu. He immigrated to California in 1914, went to school, and began working as a laborer in Milpitas, at the Kimberlin Seed Company, cultivating onion and carrot seeds.
After he married, Hirasaki moved to San Jose to open his own seed shop, and eventually purchased his own 400 acres of farmland to the south, in Gilroy. While he grew a variety of crops and maintained seed cultivation, what Hirasaki became known for was his garlic. Eventually, his farm grew to 1600 acres.
Hirasaki was an involved member of the Gilroy community, and helped his neighbors during the Depression of the 1930s by providing them with jobs and food. However, even this pillar of the community could not escape the aftershock of Pearl Harbor. In 1942, Hirasaki was forcibly moved to an internment camp called Fort Lincoln, in Bismarck, North Dakota; his family was taken south to Grand Junction, Colorado. From what I have read, it sounds like a neighbor maintained the garlic farm during this time period, and when the Hirasaki’s returned to Gilroy after the war ended, they were able to return to the farm and pick up business as usual.
I want to point out, the subject of Japanese internment during World War II is something that I really didn’t get a lot of exposure to in Massachusetts, and it’s a subject that deserves several episodes to really dive in and discuss. So while this might seem like a passing glance at it, please know that it’s a subject I plan to return to in-depth.
As you might know, garlic has a particularly pungent smell, which is only amplified when thousands of tons are being harvested, dehydrated, and processed for commercial use. During the summer harvest, if the winds are right, the scent of garlic can reach all the way up in San Jose. And while I’m all about that smell, a lot of people just aren’t. This was the case throughout the 19th and early 20th century, when many people refused to cook with garlic (why anyone would choose this I don’t know, your food must have been so bland). People disliked garlic because it caused bad breath, and locals living in Gilroy were embarrassed that their staple product was disliked by so many. The city used to be a place people passed through on 101, probably with their windows rolled up. People in surrounding towns and cities would complain about the smell during harvest.
What do you do when the crop that maintains so much of the economic industry in your city is also the thing that keeps people from visiting? How do you turn that negative relationship into a positive one?
Guys this story is so flippin’ cool.
In the 1970s, a man named Dr. Rudy Melone moved to Gilroy and was a member of the local rotary club, helping to find new avenues for fundraising for community organizations. Melone had heard of the garlic festival held annually in Arleux, France, and recognized that Gilroy had the potential for a similar event, if they spun it the right way.
To get support for his idea, Melone partnered with Don Christopher of Christopher Ranch, to petition the Rotary Club for a Gilroy Garlic Festival. They asked local chef Val Filice to prepare a few dishes featuring garlic to serve at a luncheon for the rotary club, and invited a few local media and food writers. While there were quite a few people who had some reservations about the event, overall the town was open to giving the festival a shot.
Melone started marketing Gilroy as the Garlic Capital of the World as part of his campaign to attract people to the event. The first festival was held over the weekend of August 4th and 5th, 1979, towards the end of the harvest season (so you can imagine the wonderful smell). The city was expecting somewhere between 5-10,000 people to show up — but over 15,000 individuals from all over the Bay Area (and probably beyond) arrived at Bloomfield Ranch that weekend. Beer, seafood, tickets — everything ran out much faster than anticipated, which meant organizers were running around the area (sometimes all the way to Monterey!) to gather more supplies to keep visitors happy and full of food. You could say the event was an instant success, and according to the festival’s official website, the proceeds from the event generated $19,000 that went back to the community.
The festival has grown quite a bit since it first started in 1979, and has raised over $11 million for local schools and nonprofits. Today’s big hits include the Great Garlic Cookoff, garlic french fries and ice cream, an expanded arts and crafts and children’s area, and a lineup of local musical talent.
Val Filice, the local chef brought in by Melone and Christopher, and who managed the festival’s, “Gourmet Alley”, thinks the festival was so successful because people simply didn’t know how to cook with garlic, and the garlic festival created a setting that allowed their curiosity to be explored. Festival-goers could sample dozens of dishes that featured the local “stinking rose” (what a lovely name for a food item, really) and learn how to prepare garlic in their own home cooking. Through the success of the festival, Gilroy was able to completely flip the script by creating an event that celebrates garlic, which also helped bring garlic into mainstream acceptance. The festival helped give Gilroy a cultural identity otherwise missing from its historical narrative (while some towns use local folklore as a touchpoint for tourism, like Salem MA, Gilroy didn’t really have anything going for it in that vein).
Garlic is one of the oldest-known horticultural crops grown in the world, with bulbs being found in ancient Egyptian tombs. It’s “center of origin”, the only place where garlic can naturally grow wild without human intervention, is in Central Asia. 2.5 million acres of garlic can produce roughly 10 million metric tons of garlic distributed globally around the world — and much of that garlic comes from Gilroy’s Christopher Ranch, LLC is one of the world’s largest distributors of garlic.
I found an interesting aside on the USDA’s web page about garlic. The end of the article mentions that garlic is a very under-studied piece of agriculture, and states “a better understanding of garlic’s origins and distribution may help us better understand not only garlic, but perhaps our own human history.” I can’t help but agree with that comment, considering how much garlic has globally pervaded folklore over the centuries.
Speaking of folklore, this wouldn’t be a vaguely Halloween-themed episode without talking about some of the folklore surrounding garlic! You knew this was coming, don’t even.
It’s been used for medicinal purposes dating back to 1500 BCE! Roman soldiers chewed cloves before battle, believing it would increase their strength and stamina; Slavs believed it would protect against snakebites; and African fishermen thought it would protect them from crocodiles. In some cultures it’s believed that garlic is a powerful aphrodisiac.
In ancient Greece, garlic was used as an offering to the Greek goddess Hecate, who is usually associated with magic and witchcraft. Hanging garlic was supposed to ward off evil spirits, and of course it was believed to ward off vampires, demons, werewolves…basically any demonic entity, garlic would be part of the spell to ward them off.
In World War I, garlic was used to dress wounds, abscesses, and boils — though I’m not sure where these soldiers were getting their hands on any garlic while in the trenches, but perhaps in France at least they found some locally grown and made sure to hang on to it? It’s definitely an interesting use of the plant. It’s still believed to have antibacterial and antifungal properties, as well as a cure for heart disease, headaches, and cancer. As one of my favorite podcasts, Sawbones, would put it, garlic was believed to be a cure-all….so it really wouldn’t cure anything (you should listen to Sawbones by the way).
That’s going to do it for this episode of A Noble Earthquake. Thanks for listening and thanks for your patience, I know this episode is pretty late! Going forward, I plan to release one new episode a month, unless I can get a backlog going which is a possibility, but not something I’m going to promise. So, for now, new episodes will drop on the 3rd Sunday of every month, so the next one should come out on November 19th. I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope everyone has a spooktacular Halloween!
Adema, Pauline. Garlic Capital of the World: Gilroy, Garlic, and the Making of a Festive Foodscape. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2010.
Gilroy Garlic Festival Official Website
City of Gilroy History
Christopher Ranch LLC
Garlic Origins. USDA.
The Gilroy Dispatch: Gilroy Is Still the Garlic Capital Around Here, The Original Garlic King, Everything You Wanted to Know About Garlic But Were Afraid to Ask
Densho Encyclopedia: Kiyoshi Hirasaki
American Folklore: Garlic Superstitions and Folklore
Majewski, Michał. “Allium sativum: facts and myths regarding human health.” Roczniki Państwowego Zakładu Higieny 65.1 (2014).
Royal Horticultural Society: Garlic