Nobody sitting around the lunch table that fateful day in 1979 could have predicted it. There they were, just a bunch of regular Rotary Club guys, trying to do their civic duty by parading one of the local agricultural products before a group of California food editors. Hint: the lunch menu included pasta with garlic sauce, salad with garlic dressing, and garlic bread. No one can remember if they actually had garlic ice cream or not.

It was the Gilroy, California, Rotarians, in the process of making big time history.

A lot of people think garlic as we know it was invented by Alice Waters, chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., who, all in one meal, once served garlic souffle', baked fish with garlic confit, squab with garlic sauce, romaine and rocket salad with garlic, and garlic-flavored sherbet. Actually, the plot to change garlic from lovers' scourge to household word was hatched at that fateful Rotary Club lunch, by a food writer for the Los Angeles Times. "Why don't you guys have a garlic festival?" she said, more or less.

Today the Gilroy Garlic Festival is one of those annual celebratory events that's part medieval worship rite, part modern marketing technique and part old-fashioned fair, all California style. It's helped to put garlic -- and Gilroy -- on the culinary map.

But at the beginning there were obstacles. Laughter, derisive laughter, was one. "We offered the festival to the Rotary Club," says Don Christopher, a festival founder and garlic grower who has about 1,000 acres planted in garlic, "but the guy who was president was also mayor of Gilroy, and he laughed at us."

Christopher and others persisted with the idea, and the first year's festival set up shop on a couple of dusty acres beside the highway. To everyone's great surprise, 20,000 people came. At least festival organizers think 20,000 people came. They ran out of tickets, so no one is really sure.

The next year 60,000 people came, but that's an estimate too, since there were again more people than tickets. "The third year," says festival president Leonard Hale, "we had 80,000. We didn't run out of tickets but a lot of people were getting in in places where we didn't have a fence."

Last year's tally was somewhere above 120,000, and you can bet that mayor isn't laughing any more. If the idea of festivals like this is to support the local economy and at the same time make everybody feel good, the Gilroy Garlic Festival has been a small-town mayor's fantasy writ large.

The festival has what festivals usually have -- crowds, beer, singers and dancers, arts and crafts, food and a first aid station.

And there is a Miss Garlic Festival, of course, this year one Monica Ann Baca, who was judged on "personality, evening gown, a short speech on garlic, fashion modeling and a talent presentation." Baca substituted a little song for the short speech, and those who heard it remember something about "how to catch a man by the garlic breath plan." Next stop for Baca, who studies languages at Brigham Young University, is law school.

Then there is the Tour de Garlique bicycle tournament held the Sunday before the festival, the 10k Garlic Gallop race and the Garlic Squeeze Barn Dance.

But the main event at the festival itself, held this year July 26, 27 and 28, is food, and three guesses about what kind of food. Food with garlic!

Since this is California, and very near both Monterey and San Francisco to boot, there's lots of seafood, and a good bit of sophistication as well. Calamari is popular, as are scampi, pasta with pesto, and stir-fry vegetables.

Around the fringes are artichokes, escargots, homemade cookies, corn dogs, ravioli, Italian ice and corn on the cob, for starters. There is garlic in everything, even the ice cream and cookies. Festival organizers claim that one ton -- that's 2,000 pounds -- of fresh garlic was required last year to achieve the proper intensity of flavor at the festival.

Lest this all seem like mindless frivolity, it's good to keep in mind that the festival attracts some serious cooks, both professional and amateur, who produce interesting recipes that they are willing to share with the public.

And the festival is big business. Each one of those 120,000 attendees spends about $20 in Gilroy, some of it on gas and lodging, but most of it on the celebration, one way or another, of garlic.

Volunteers, several thousand strong, run the proceedings from beginning to end, and proceeds are donated to charities chosen by the volunteers. Last year the festival gave away over $250,000.

Take a drive along the highway that threads its way between the two mountain ranges flanking Gilroy and what you see are acres, and more acres, flat as a griddle and fertile as anything, of vegetables. Artichokes, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, in fact much of the produce that helps keep America healthy, is arranged in neat rows here. The garlic looks strangely like onions at first, mainly because to the uninitiated eye it's unbelievable that the world could possibly use that much garlic.

The way the Gilroy folks tell it, Americans are real pikers when it comes to garlic use. We manage a paltry pound -- about 12 bulbs -- per person per year. "The Koreans use maybe 30 pounds apiece per year," says Don Christopher wistfully. "It sure would be nice if we could do that." But we're not as backward as the Scandanavians, who "don't know what the hell it is."

As with any money crop dependent on the whims of the weather and the marketplace, garlic, even in Gilroy, has had its troubles.

After Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook came out more and more California growers, smelling increased demand in the air, turned their fields of peppers and tomatoes into fields of garlic. Since each 100 acres of garlic represents an investment of about $400,000, piles of unsold and rotting garlic can be a real accountant's nightmare. Many growers went under during the period of disequilibrium, but consumers' desire is expected to pull even with production again this year.

And up until a few years ago there was another problem, too, in the form of pilferers. Much of the garlic crop is left lying in the fields for about 10 days after harvest so it can dry a bit before it's sent to market. The sight of such plenty just lying there was apparently too much for certain area residents, who took to making night raids on the fields.

Then the raiders got really greedy and began sending children out to collect ever larger quantities, which were then turned into profit on the streets of San Francisco.

"We found out that threatening to take the tires off their cars worked," says Don Christopher. "If they took the garlic we'd take the tires. Nobody ever had to actually take tires off cars, but one of the growers did take his forklift and threaten to throw a car down the creek one time."

That problem solved, growers moved on to more pleasant tasks, like spreading the word about the sensuous, habit-forming qualities of their innocent-looking little bulbs.

Some little facts about buying, storing and using garlic might help enhance your own enjoyment:

*Fresh garlic has a life cycle. It's harvested in July, August and September in the United States and is stored and available in food markets from then until January or February, at which point imported garlic becomes available. So the freshest American garlic is available now or will be shortly. Old garlic loses its potency, but as long as it hasn't rotted, you can still use it. Just use more.

*That raw, burning taste that you sometimes get in raw garlic usually means the garlic has been around for a while but is not yet really old. Very young garlic usually tastes smoother, although Evelyn Bautista, chairman of the Great Garlic Cook-off (festival talk for recipe contest), says if you're around the garlic world long enough you think of that taste as just part of eating garlic.

*The most expensive garlic is the garlic with the biggest cloves, but many markets prefer to sell medium-priced and therefore medium-sized. "We're so spoiled out here," says Don Christopher, "that we throw away all the little cloves." Larger cloves mean you get more garlic per peeling time, but it doesn't mean anything about quality.

*Mexican garlic is usually purple, American garlic white, and only the compulsively opinionated can detect a flavor difference. Americans tend to prefer the white version, with its natural brownish outer layer removed.

*Heads should feel firm when you buy them in the supermarket, and there should be as little papery outer layer as possible.

*Garlic will keep longer if it's kept dry and cool. Don't store it in the refrigerator. Air circulation is also important, and the Gilroy experts like the unglazed ceramic garlic keepers that abound on the market.

*Don't buy braids unless you know they are very fresh and then only if you use a lot of garlic.

*To break apart a head of garlic, set it on its root end and press down on its top with the flat part of a large knife blade. To easily peel a clove or two, hit them lightly with the flat edge of a large knife. Skins will slip off. To peel large numbers of cloves more easily, drop them for just a second or two into boiling water.

*In general, use a press if you want intense flavor, chop your garlic if you want to be more moderate. However, there are schools of thought on this issue, and the debate will undoubtedly rage forever.

*Long-cooked garlic, as in the recipe for chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, below, is completely different in character from raw garlic. It loses its intensity and becomes sweet and unctuous.

*Chewing on parsley or green cardamom pods will cleanse the mouth after eating garlic.

*For getting garlic odor off hands, try rubbing hands with salt or lemon juice, then rinsing in cold water. The Garlic Festival folks also recommend holding your hands under running water while at the same time rubbing them over something that is made of stainless steel. A chemical reaction takes place, it's said, that removes the odor.

*One of the most useful of cooks' tricks is the persillade, made of garlic and parsley chopped together, which can be added to many vegetable, egg and meat dishes toward the end of their cooking. Use two cloves of garlic to 1/4 cup of chopped parsley, or whatever ratio pleases you. Add this mixture at the end of cooking to green beans, saute'ed mushrooms, omelettes, or fried potatoes. Let the persillade cook with the main ingredients until its odor begins to perfume the kitchen, then serve.

*Long-cooked garlic has a number of uses. Bake whole heads in the oven, drizzled with olive oil and salt and pepper, at 325 degrees for about an hour, or until it's very tender. Serve as a spread with crusty country bread, simply squeezing the garlic out of its skins onto the bread. If you happen to be grilling other foods, the bread's flavor will be enhanced by grilling, too. You can also wrap whole heads in foil and roast slowly beside the coals. GARLIC CONFIT (6 servings)

Alice Waters uses this confit, along with chopped tomatoes and herbs as a stuffing for baked fish and it is also delicious as an accompaniment to poultry or meat dishes, especially those with sultry mediterranean-type sauces. It can also be sprinkled over such dishes at serving time.

4 large heads garlic

3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 sprigs fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram

2 bay leaves

2 cups rendered duck or goose fat, approximately (light olive oil or clarified butter may be substituted for the fat)

2 bay leaves

Break the 4 heads of garlic into cloves and leave them unpeeled. Put the cloves into a heavy-bottomed pan in one layer, add sprigs of thyme, marjoram, and 2 bay leaves. Cover the garlic with the fat or oil. Cook very slowly for about 30 minutes, until the garlic is completely tender. Remove the cloves from the fat and let cool; then peel and slice them about 1/8-inch thick. From "Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook," Random House, 1982 GRILLED SPEARFISH WITH GARLIC BEURRE ROUGE (6 servings)

This recipe, the invention of Beverly Stone of Berkeley won the 1984 Great Garlic Recipe contest at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

1/2 cup fruity olive oil

5 tablespoons lemon juice

4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and slivered

1 bunch cilantro (coriander), chopped to make 1/2 cup, reserving some whole leaves for garnish

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

6 6-ounce fillets or steaks from firm fleshed fish such as swordfish, tuna, shark or monkfish, about 1/4-inch thick (or any firm-fleshed fish)

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1/4 cup sweet red onion, chopped

2 small hot green chilies, finely minced

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh garlic

1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped

Lemon wedges for garnish

Mix together olive oil, 4 tablespoons lemon juice, slivered garlic, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro and salt and pepper to taste. Add fish fillets and marinate for 1 hour or as long as overnight.

Meanwhile prepare Garlic Beurre Rouge. In a frying pan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Saute' onion, chilies and minced garlic until soft, stirring. Add tomatoes and the remaining 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Cook, stirring for 10 minutes.

Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in remaining 1/4 cup chopped cilantro. Slowly stir in remaining butter to melt.

Barbecue fish over low glowing coals about 7 minutes or until done to your liking, turning fish once. Remove to warm serving platter.

Top with Garlic Beurre Rouge Sauce. Garnish with lemon wedges and reserved cilantro leaves. GARLIC CHICKEN (Poulet "aux 40 Gousses d'Ail") (4 servings)

The garlic, squeezed from its hull and spread onto grilled crisp slices of rough country bread as one eats the chicken, will be appreciated by all who do not share the mental antigarlic quirk; if the bread can be grilled over hot coals, the light smoky flavor will be found to marry particularly well with the garlic pure'e.

For variety's sake, turn, quarter, and choke 3 or 4 tender young artichokes, coating them immediately in the recipe's olive oil before mixing all the ingredients together.

1 chicken, cut up as for a saute' (or 4 legs, thighs and drumsticks, separated)

4 heads firm garlic, broken into cloves, cleared of loose hulls, but unpeeled

2/3 cup olive oil plus extra for dough

Salt and pepper to taste

1 teaspoon finely crumbled mixed dried herbs (thyme, oregano, savory)

1 large bouquet garni: large branch celery, parsley and root (if available), bay leaf, leek greens, small branch lovage (if available)

Flour for dough

Put everything except the bouquet and flour into an earthenware casserole, turning around and over repeatedly with your hands to be certain of regularly dispersed seasoning and liberal and even coating of oil. Force the bouquet into the center, packing the chicken around and filling all interstices with garlic cloves. Prepare a very thick dough of flour, water, and a dribble of oil, roll it into a long cylindrical band on a floured board, moisten the ridge of the casserole, press the roll of paste into place, and press the lid on top. Cook in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour and 45 minutes and break the seal of paste at the table. From "Simple French Food" by Richard Olney, Atheneum, 1974 BOURRIDE (8 servings: you must make this recipe for at least that many)

This unctuous, savory cream soup is a tradition in the South, from Marseilles to Monaco. Since either whiting and bass or cod are available year round in the United States, you can serve this soup in any season.

The chunks of fish are removed from the soup and served separately. I like to serve the fish as a second course after the soup, but most Nicois prefer having everything arrive on the table at the same time. Choose a bright crockery dish, since the soup and the fish have a pale color. 3 slices good white bread for making croutons

4 1/2 pounds of three different fish in any proportions (choose among striped bass, ocean perch, whiting, pollack, haddock, cod, flounder, halibut)

1 whole leek, chopped

1 large onion, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for croutons

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

1 1/2 cups water

3 2-inch pieces of orange rind

1 tablespoon dried fennel or anise

1 teaspoon thyme

2 bay leaves

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

2 cups aioli (see recipe above)

5 egg yolks

Sprigs of parsley

Make croutons; cut slices of good firm bread in cubes or triangles and place in a 350-degree oven for 4 minutes. Turn them over, sprinkle with a little olive oil and bake for 3 more minutes. Fillet the fish (do not discard the heads and bones) or ask to have this done at the market. Stew the leek, onion, and carrot in the olive oil for about 15 minutes, or until they are soft. Add the fish heads and bones only, then wine, water (more if necessary), orange rind, fennel or anise, thyme, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and skim off the froth. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes. Strain into a pot, pushing as much of the bits of fish through as possible. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the fish fillets into 2-inch-square pieces. Bring the soup stock to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and put in the heavier pieces of fish first, adding the lighter, more delicate ones later. The whole cooking time should be about 6 minutes for the entire batch.

Meanwhile, warm a platter in a 200-degree oven. Place the fillets on the platter and pour a ladlefull of warm broth over them. Seal with aluminum foil and keep the fish warm in the oven. Reserve the soup.

Prepare aioli sauce. Put 8 tablespoons of this in a bowl and slowly add egg yolks, stirring gently. Refrigerate the rest of the aioli to use later. Prepare the croutons.

Reheat the stock over a low flame. Beat half of it very slowly into the aioli-egg mixture with a wooden spoon, then pour this mixture back into the rest of the soup (be sure the flame is low or the soup will curdle). Keep stirring and cook just until the soup has thickened enough to coat a spoon as with custard. Be careful not to let it heat enough to boil. When the soup has been cooked to a velvety texture, ladle it onto the croutons and serve as a first course.

As a following course, remove the foil from the platter of fish, garnish with parsley and serve with the bowl of chilled aioli.

Variation: Serve the soup over the fillets of fish and the croutons, and pass the bowl of aioli separately. GARLIC MAYONNAISE

This wonderful sauce has been called "the butter of Provence," "the soul of the South," "cream of sun," and it is indeed as heady as it sounds. It can be served with a basket of raw vegetables and hard-cooked eggs or as part of an aioli monstre, with snails, squid, dried cod, tuna, and a splendid array of vegetables. In all cases, it is superbly invigorating. Only water should be served with this potent sauce, but a vigorous red wine is acceptable.

This is a sauce that cannot be made successfully in a blender. Mortar and pestle are as essential to aioli as crisp, fresh garlic.

Editors Note: Although Mireille Johnston prefers mortar and pestle, many cooks use a blender or a food processor successfully. AIOLI (6 servings)

8 to 10 garlic cloves

2 egg yolks at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon or more salt to taste

1 1/2 cups oil (half peanut and half olive oil), at room temperature

Juice of 1 lemon

Freshly ground white pepper

Peel the garlic cloves (make sure they are firm and without any green in the center). Place the egg yolks in the mortar and slip a kitchen towel under it to prevent it from slipping when you use the pestle.

Crush the garlic through a garlic press into the mortar. Add the salt and pound with the pestle until the garlic, salt, and yolks have turned into paste.

Slowly start pouring the oil in a steady flow, stirring constantly with the pestle. Keep stirring steadily until you obtain a thick, shiny, firm sauce. Add the lemon juice and pepper and stir for another minute. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

Note: If the aioli curdles (that is, the oil and egg yolk separate), empty it in a bowl. Put a fresh yolk in the mortar, add 1 tablespoon of warm red vinegar or lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of mustard and stir vigorously. Then slowly add the curdled aioli. Beat steadily until you have a smooth sauce. Add the lemon juice and pepper and beat for another minute. From "Cuisine of the Sun," by Mireille Johnston, Random House, 1976