Like so many that have come before it — the 2017 Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas, the November 2015 attacks in Paris — the Gilroy attack brought tragedy to a venue where people were relaxed, eating and having fun. To outsiders, the Gilroy Garlic Festival might sound like a small agricultural fair, but it’s actually a massive attraction that draws visitors from all over the country, and a charity event hugely meaningful to the city of Gilroy.
Gilroy calls itself the “Garlic Capital of the U.S.” More than 90 percent of the country’s garlic is grown in California, with production centered in Gilroy — though the industry has faced competition from Chinese imported garlic. The city, about a 30-minute drive from San Jose, smells like garlic, and the actor and humorist Will Rogers once called it “the only place in America where you can marinate a steak by hanging it on a clothesline.” Many of its businesses pay homage to the city’s signature crop year round.
The Gilroy Garlic Festival began in 1979. The festival was founded by Rudy Melone, then-president of Gavilan College in Gilroy. Melone had heard of a French garlic festival and decided to throw a competing one, enlisting local farmers to supply the garlic for cooking competitions and dishes. Proceeds benefited the local community. The Washington Post even sent a reporter to the first festival:
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.
Now, the festival is a huge event. Attendance has exceeded 100,000 in previous years. According to organizers, it has raised more than $11.7 million for local schools and nonprofit groups over the years and has given the city a strong sense of identity and pride.
It’s a quirky celebration of a stinky ingredient. Vendors sell shirts with sayings like, “May the Stink Be With You” and “Seek the Reek.” There are garlic-braiding demonstrations and the crowning of an annual Miss Gilroy Garlic Festival Queen. People wear hats that look like garlic heads.
But there’s also typical entertainment. Like any big county fair, there are musical performances. This year’s headliner was Colbie Caillat, famous for her 2008 song with Jason Mraz, “Lucky.”
It’s a major food festival. A big feature is the festival’s “gourmet alley,” where visitors can try lots of garlicky food: Calamari, shrimp scampi, garlic bread and garlic fries are among its offerings. There’s even garlic ice cream, which has a sweet-savory garlic vanilla taste. Vendors sell garlic olive oil, salt and other products (there are non-garlic foods available, too). Some of the entertainment includes a “Garlic Chef Jr.” cook-off for kids age 9 through 18, and cooking demonstrations from celebrity chefs, including “Top Chef’s” Tom Colicchio and “Real Housewives of New Jersey” star Teresa Giudice, who has published a cookbook. Neither was present during the shooting.
The festival organizers have issued a statement asking for support and prayers. At a news conference Sunday evening, the festival’s executive director, Brian Bowe, said, “Gilroy is an amazing, tightly knit community. We are family. We have had the wonderful opportunity in this community to celebrate our family through our garlic festival, and for over four decades that festival has been our annual family reunion. It’s such a sad, just horribly upsetting circumstance that this happened on the third and final day of this year’s festival.”