It’s the legendary scourge of vampires a rustic remedy for a host of ailments and a natural poison for mosquitoes and aphids. Garlic, of course, is primarily a pungent and popular herbal seasoning, and to its growers in Gilroy, Calif., it is fast becoming the sweetest of cash crops. The Santa Clara Valley community and its environs, the self-styled “Garlic Capital of the World,” account for some 80 percent of the U.S. garlic grown each year, and the farmers there are the bulb’s biggest boosters since King Tut was buried with the herb about 3,300 years ago.
“Garlic is something you don’t joke about anymore,” says Gilroy farmer Val Filice, 55. “At one time you ate it in a sneaky way. Now everybody is a garlie lover.” To be sure, in the longstanding skirmish between garlic lovers and haters, the lovers are winning by more than a nose. Fresh garlic consumption in the U.S. has jumped by 1,000 percent in the last decade, and in California sales have soared by 50 percent in the last three years alone. However, America’s per capita consumption of fresh and dehydrated garlic (1.1 pounds per year) pales in comparison with the 20 pounds gobbled up by Thais and Koreans.
First mentioned 5,000 years ago in a Sanskrit text, garlic was eaten by Greek and Roman warriors as a source of strength and courage in battle. It has been used as a toothache cure (place one clove where it hurts) and a cold remedy (ingest as often as possible). British doughboys used it as a natural antiseptic for their wounds in World War I. Today the Chinese are researching its use as a treatment for meningitis, studies in India indicate that it may reduce atherosclerosis, and USC scientists are investigating it as a possible cancer preventative.
Gilroy’s biggest garlic grower-packer, 48-year-old Don Christopher, will harvest 1,000 acres this year. Although he initially set out to raise prunes, Christopher decided in 1956 that “It was a blah crop. It didn’t make any difference if you sprayed today or tomorrow. There were no pressures. Then when you produced the crop, nobody liked it.”
If garlic is more popular than prunes, it seems equally effortless to grow. A member of the lily family, it is planted by machine from garlic cloves in late fall. About six months later a special cutter severs the roots of the garlic bulbs, after which they are extracted by hand. For the next two weeks the plants are left in the field to cure. Then the stems and roots are snipped off manually and the crop spends another 10 days in wooden outdoor bins for further curing. That done, the garlic is trucked to a storage shed for hand sorting and grading.
Garlic can only be cultivated every four to six years in the same field (lest the cloves grow smaller and smaller), so it is rotated with other crops such as beets and tomatoes. “But the biggest problem with garlic is just keeping the soil conditions constant, keeping an even moisture and having to fertilize,” explains Filice. Not even bugs are a bugaboo in the irrigated fields “because growing is done in cold weather.”
As a harvesttime homage to their $51 million crop, Gilroy growers and residents last summer hosted their fourth annual garlic festival. Some 110,000 visitors to the three-day fete viewed innovations like garlic jelly, garlic ice cream and even a perfume called “Garlique,” a “shameless scent of desire that delicately masks the odor of Scope on your breath.”
For the more seriously food-minded, the locals offered a variety of garlic-laced gazpacho, burritos, quiche, Chinese chicken salad, Polish sausage and Vietnamese spring rolls. Supervising the festival’s “Gourmet Alley” was garlic grower Filice, who whipped up batches of his specialty: garlic-laden calamari and scampi in lobster-butter sauce. “I use it in almost everything because it brings out all the flavors of other foods,” says Val of his favorite seasoning. As for garlic’s lingering fragrance, “The best advice I can give is eat with someone else,” grins Filice. “Then they’ll never notice. Garlic loves company.”