As is tradition, the vampires of Gilroy, California loaded up their cars this Friday and headed out to Lake Tahoe for a fun-filled weekend of nighttime wakeboarding and moonlit barbecues. Says trip organizer Drake Yula, “Living so close to the festival was tough at first, but after a while we learned to use it as an excuse to get away, kick back, and recharge our batteries. Now everyone in the community looks forward to the end of July. It’s one of the most exciting times of the year.”
The Gilroy Garlic Festival is held every last full weekend in July and is one of the largest food festivals in the United States. The popular event has raised about seven and a half million dollars for local charities since its founding in 1979. The exact number is posted at the heart of the festival, in front of a flaming metal clove of garlic the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
Taking advantage of the vamps’ absence this past Saturday, I took a drive down to the “Garlic Capital of the World” with my girlfriend Ashley and my buddy Josh. We had all heard a lot of great things about the festival, but none of us had been before, so we were excited to see if it deserved the hype. We arrived at our destination a little before eleven, after about an hour driving south down 101 and then 152. Volunteers directed the trail of cars through town to a gigantic dirt field that served as a parking lot. The day was beginning to heat up, and a pleasant breeze helped to keep the sweat at bay. A shady walk along a single lane road led to Christmas Hill Park, where we were joined by Sam, a friend Josh had met while in Europe. A Gilroy local, she led us past the gate and through the maze of bodies.
The deeper we ventured inside, the bigger it seemed. Despite the considerable space of the park, people packed into it like sardines in a tin. Babies in strollers brushed against seniors in shorts. A bearded man in a kilt crossed paths with a Pauly D lookalike. Once in a while I spotted a particularly fashionable person sporting a hat made to look like a clove of garlic.
Naturally, our first stop was the beer booth. Ashley bought a souvenir tin cup to save some waste, but the volunteer behind the bar poured the Stella into a disposable cup anyway. However, she and I both were impressed by the initiative of the festival organizers. The park was filled with clearly designated refuse containers, and the biodegradable potato-plastic cup found a home nestled in the compost bin.
We made our way to the other side of the park to grab some food. Josh was so excited to eat crawfish that when the woman behind the counter finally passed him a steaming bowl of étouffée, he began to giggle uncontrollably. We found a spot at a picnic table under the shade of gigantic trees and dug in. The beer was refreshing, and the food was delicious. The spicy bite of the crawfish blended perfectly with the rice. We munched down on some serious garlic bread―which complemented the étouffée superbly―and then Josh and I topped it all off with some alligator and kangaroo meat kabobs. What they say is true: alligator really does taste just like chicken, and what a terrific piece of chicken that was! The kangaroo was also good, and it reminded me of lamb.
After we finished eating, the temperature at the park was climbing upwards, so we moseyed on over under the wine-tasting area. Pipes snaked across the ceiling and misters kissed our sweaty heads with a gentle breath of cool liquid relief. We stayed for a few minutes, sipping different wines and talking about Josh’s trip to Europe and the upcoming Bonner program. I was feeling pretty full from earlier, but I was so stoked to try some garlic ice cream that when we finally left the tent to find some, I couldn’t think of anything else.
Apparently Ashley did not have that problem, as she dipped into another booth to get a henna tattoo. Sam joined her, so Josh and I forged on with eyes peeled. The gigantic line of folks protruding from one stand signaled to us, and we swooped in at the end. Thankfully, people moved quickly and not five minutes had passed before we ambled back to the henna tent with a handful of free miniature garlic ice cream cones. Once we were safe in the shade, I passed a cone to Ashley, and then I quickly and messily devoured my own. I fully expected a roundhouse kick to my taste buds, but I was pleasantly surprised at the playful hint of garlic nipping at the tail of a cool mellow sweetness.
Alas, we were at the end of our excursion. I needed to be back on campus by four o’clock for work, so we said our goodbyes to Sam and headed back to the car. The shade of the trees was even more appreciated on the hot walk back to the parking field. We jumped in Josh’s Civic, rolled down the windows, and were on our way.
I had a great time at the festival, and I plan on returning in 2013. The prices were a little steeper than I had anticipated, but I’m happy to know that my money will be going to charity. Furthermore, I don’t think I’ve ever tried so many different foods and drinks all in one day. As my first-ever Garlic Festival, Saturday was a great day of new experiences. Maybe next year I’ll head down to Gilroy the weekend before as well―after all, I’ve never met a vampire before.