Visitors From Afar Flock to Garlic Festival

Best friends Karanina Ball left, from Atwater, and Dana Eclarin, from Hollister, enjoy food Friday at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

Gilroy
– Bernard Anderson hoisted a three-foot tube of garlic bulbs
over his shoulder, chuckling deep and long.
Gilroy – Bernard Anderson hoisted a three-foot tube of garlic bulbs over his shoulder, chuckling deep and long.

“I’m here for the garlic,” said Anderson, an Oakland saxophonist who had just finished his Garlic Festival set, tipping his sunglasses down in the broiling heat. “The people on the block told me, ‘Bring back the garlic!'”

They came for the garlic and stayed for skateboard antics, spinning teacups, belly dancing, makeovers, mandolin, karaoke, kitchenware and kitsch. They sampled garlic in its every incarnation – roasted, pickled, minced and marinated, slathered on rattlesnake, sopped over scampi, even sweet and cold and creamy atop cantaloupe.

“If you’re here at the festival, what are you afraid of?” asked Andrei Hernandez, who road-tripped five hours from Los Angeles with his wife Christina, and their soon-to-be-wed friends John Lozano and Jennifer Waggener. Saturday, the friends were shoveling down praline-garlic ice cream in the midday heat – the perfect chaser to kangaroo and deep-fried gator, he added. “Try it!”

Nearly 100,000 people flocked to the Garlic Festival this year, from the East Coast to Eighth Street, packing Gilroy’s stinky, signature spectacle. Attendance topped 2006 by more than 10 percent, said Executive Director Brian Bowe, and total revenue surged to $1.6 million, with a $477,000 chunk coming directly from Gourmet Alley.

“We were blown away,” said Debby Anderson, who flew from Atlanta to take in the festival. For three years, she and her husband, Dale, have plotted this trip, inspired by an accidental stop in Gilroy in the off-season, and a slew of Food Network spots. “It’s way beyond amazing!”

“What you see on TV doesn’t even show everything that’s here,” added Dale Anderson, grinning. “We just started eating!”

Sunday night, sotted with margaritas and leftover shrimp scampi, organizers declared the event a huge success, toasting festival president Judy Lazarus with an off-color “American Idol” spoof.

Vice President Ed Struzik ribbed Lazarus for rocking the boat by introducing the new professional cook-off, relocating the Children’s Area and feeding volunteers at Gourmet Alley instead of a designated Hospitality Tent – changes that ultimately met rave reviews after the festive garlic bulb had been doused. Struzik applauded her work, and Lazarus praised Struzik, next year’s president.

“I know you’re going to do a fabulous job,” she said.

“Judy says that,” Struzik joked, “but after this weekend, I’m terrified!”

New attractions included the Garlic Showdown, which pitted pro chefs against each other in a pork-and-garlic contest, and the Hello Tomorrow makeover tent – sponsored by Avon – where beautified patrons could submit their wishes for a shot at $20,000 to combat domestic violence.

And, of course, there were garlic fries, which drew lines of at least 50 people clamoring for the greasy, savory spuds. Gourmet Alley dished out more than 8,000 boatloads of the fries.

But for locals, the mainstays remained.

“The beer, the boys and Shaboom,” said Casey Serrano, a Gilroy native now living in Morgan Hill. Shaboom, a festival favorite, plays retro rock to massive crowds. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Beer flowed freely behind a gauntlet of ID checks and ticket lines where security patrolled, rechecking IDs of those with suspiciously loose bracelets.

Boys and girls milled from booth to booth in a bonanza of people-watching: the Siller family from San Jose, their heads festooned with a goofy chicken, a buffalo, even a neon-pink Cheshire Cat.

“I like watching everybody’s mullets,” added Tony Solorio, selling parody T-shirts alongside Tom and Jill Steinmetz, shirts with slogans such as ‘Attack of the Cloves’ and ‘Reek Out and Touch Someone.’

“Last year we got 40-something mullets. A great mullet showing.”

Mullet count by closing time, 7pm Sunday: 25.

Shaboom’s afternoon shows stocked the amphitheater with more than 500 fans, who frantically twisted, hand-jived and hopped to covers of bygone hits from the Temptations and the Beach Boys. Devotees were devastated by the news that this Garlic Festival would be the band’s last. The rockers have retired and scattered, they explained.

“We’re all bummed out,” said Tim Jobe, who drove eight hours from Yucca Valley with his girlfriend, Debbie Shealy, just to see Shaboom. Somewhere in the crowd, someone murmured, “If it’s their last year, then it’s my last year, too.”

Shaboom wasn’t the only act. Between the Garlic Idol contest and country-Western up-and-comers, fiddlers and kiddie rockstar Zach Allen, festival-goers had nearly as much in their eardrums as on their plates.

Nor did they leave empty-handed. A labyrinth of festival vendors hawked toe rings, sauces, lavender and leather. Colanders, dish towels and wine glasses sold briskly at the souvenir tents, which were picked clean by 3pm Sunday. Herbie the garlic-clove bobblehead was already in demand Friday morning as volunteers jostled for this year’s doll.

“I’ve got five Herbies, some for me, some for guests, some for people who couldn’t be here,” said volunteer Yvonne Duen, one of the first to purchase a Herbie. “I’ve got every Herbie made.”

As the festival wound down, horses, police cruisers, golf carts and a fire engine paraded to the massive garlic bulb, ignited at the event’s kickoff, to snuff the flame. Lazarus suited up in firefighters’ duds and hosed down the bulb, ringed by volunteers chanting, “Judy! Judy! Judy!”

“It’s just amazing,” said Barbara Biafore, a Gilroy Historical Society volunteer shilling posters in the souvenir tent, as she scanned the colorful array of posters and festivals past. “It’s world-renowned. It’s self-perpetuating. And it builds on itself, every year.”

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