"Next time you are away from South County, and someone asks "Where's Gilroy?" pop out your chest with pride and loudly proclaim, "It's the Garlic Capitol of the World."" - from an editorial in the Gilroy Dispatch, Friday, August 3, 1979

It is not as if Gilroy led a life of complete obsecurity before it became the Garlic Capitol of the World last weekend.

On the contrary, Northern Californians remember Gilroy all too vividly as the spot where Highway 101 melted into Monterey Avenue, a boulevard as infamous as it was hot, steamy and narrow. Driving south from San Franciso, you knew to allow an hour and a half to get to Gilroy...and an hour and a half to get through Bilroy. "Yep," said Rudy Melone, "our traffic jams were legendary."

Six years ago they built the Gilroy bypass for Highway 101 and the town lost even that distinction.

But Gilroy was not the kind of place to retire into oblivion. Gilroy, a proud, steady community of 18,000, would not be devoured by that octopus of the North, San Jose whose southermost boundary falls just 10 minutes away. Gilroy, after all, had etched itself into the public memory at the turn of the century, long before the advent of Garlic Chic, by calling itself the Home of the Prune; and even for the dreaded freeway detour, Gilroy would not let itself be forgotten by passing motorists: During spaghetti sauce season alone, Gilroy trumpets its pungent presence to the better part of southern Santa Clara County.

"Yep," said Melone, "you can smell Gilroy at least 10 miles away."

So it was with considerable interest that Melone, president of Gilroy's Gavilan Community College, stumbled across a newspaper article on Arleux, France, not long ago. Melone was struck not only by the fact that that community of 2,500 near the Belgian border was claiming to be the garlic capital of the world, but that every year, 70,000 people showed up for a festival to help Arleux celebrate that claim.

All these years, Melone realized, Gilroy had been sitting on top of a $50 million industry, dead in the center of the 90-mile region that produces 90 percent of the world's garlic. And all these years, Gilroy, weary of the way the western world tended to wrinkle its nose at a lovely weed like garlic, had virtually been apologizing for that fact.

"So I decided, let's acknowledge our garlic industry," said Melone. "Let's talk about the fact that garlic is great, instead of always putting it down. Let's take what seems to be a negative and turn it into something positive."

Melone and his friends from the Gilroy Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce decided to make Gilroy synonymous with garlic. For inspiration, they had only to look the 40 miles south to Castroville, the Artichoke Capital of the World, to see how pride in a hometown product could put a place on the map. What artichokes had done for Castroville, they realized, garlic could do for Gilroy.

By mid-April, Gilroy was gearing up for its first annual garlic festival. The reigning Miss American Garlic, Rose Emma Pelliccione, who held the title ever since she was crowned in 1955, volunteered to run the beauty and recipe contests. Community leaders such as rancher John Christopher contributed the $7,000 that financed the garlic festival.

"We have the weather and soil for garlic, and hey, we're proud of our garlic," said Christopher, who grows much of it. At the festival site, Gilroy's "historic" Bloomfield hacienda (built in the mid 1930s), 50 acres of early-crop garlic were plowed up to serve as a parking lot. The Gavilan College cafeteria became the site of the cook-off for the 10 garlic-recipe finalists.

By Friday, the eve of the festival, Gilroy's population was fairly crazy with garlic. Braids of garlic bulbs hung from almost every one of the 70 food and information booths at the festival. Pet garlic ("for the family that already has a pet rock") went on sale for $2. Garlic Queen Katy Bendel wore a lei of garlic along with her tiara. Garlic packer Bob Kraemer, who made his name in Gilroy last Halloween when he went to work dressed as the Great Pumpkin, showed up disguised as a garlic clove.

And there was a new note of militancy to Gilroy's garlic madness. In addition to urging its readers to pop out their chests with pride at the mention of their home-town, the lead editorial in Friday's Gilroy Dispatch called on residents to defend Gilroy's highly distinctive ordor:

"The dust and aroma clinging to individuals and the town during the peak harvest season should be seen as a badge of honor, rather than of embarassment."

Fortunately, as the festival opened on Saturday, nobody was taking that advice too seriously. Washing their garlic bread down with garlic wine, garlic-philes seemed eager to view the issue with equanimity.

t"The mouthwash companies call garlic breath the worst breath of them all," said Lloyd J. Harris, founder and president of the Lovers of the Stinking Rose, a Berkeley-based garlic society. "We think garlic is a cure for mouthwash breath."

"Garlic breath is great," declared Queen Katy.

And rancher Christopher, dipping into a bowl of garlic-drenched scampi, deadpanned: "We haven't had a single complaint about garlic breath here at the festival."

Around the festival, most people had better things to do than complain about garlic breath. There was music, a kind of disco-country-western-rock, to listen to. There were products to sample. There were contests to enter, contests that ranged from a variation of garlic roulette to the traditional garlic-topping olympiad.

Elsewhere on the grounds, meanwhile, garlic was being universally lauded, hailed as the cure for everything from athelte's foot to clogged arteries to mosquito bites. Garlic repelled all manner of pests, said Rudy Melone. "There's not a bat in all of gilroy."

Garlic is a longevity food, a white-haired chef at the Jaycees garlic barbecue insisted: "It's not the yogurt that keeps 'em alive 'til 105 in Russia, it's the garlic."

And the legend of garlic as an aphrodisiac is no mere legend, according to Lloyd Harris. "There's something about garlic that creates excitement," he said. "People can get real loose around garlic."

But the fact, along with the growing reverence toward garlic in health and natural food circles, does not mean garlic should be lumped in with all the other flash-in-the-pan food fads, its supporters say. Garlic's time has come, they insist, and as proof they offer the fact that garlic consumption has doubled worldwide in the last five years.

"Garlic is going to be here forever, and all the scientific research is proving this," said Rudy Melone. "This is no fad."

"Garlic is chic now - finally," Don Christopher agreed with a smile. "The future is real rosy for garlic. And also for Gilroy."

Around Gilroy, the garlic festival was the biggest thing to hit town in recent memory.

Then yesterday morning, the town was hit by the biggest earthquake in recent memory

Seismologists said the quake, which registered 5.9 on the Richter scale, was centered in Hollister, about 10 miles from Gilroy.

Paul Marshall of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce was on his way to the bank with the receipts from the festival when the quake began at 10:05 a.m.

"The back end of my car lifted up off the street," said Marshall. "It was really bad."

Marshall said that when he arrived at the bank, all the employes were standing in the street. "They wouldn't go back in the bank. I guess they were waiting for aftershocks," Marshall said.

Back at the Chamber of Commerce, Marshall said the place was a wreck. He said the display bottles of wine from the Gilroy area had shattered, "and there's wine all over the place. It's a mess." CAPTION: Picture 1, Bob Kraemer in garlic garb at festival; by Bryan Moss; Picture 2, Lloyd Harris, president of Lovers of the Stinking Rose; by Marty Wolfe