Gilroy and the iconization of garlic
The "Great Garlic Godfather of Summer Festivals" refuses an offer
You smell Gilroy before you see it. As you drive south from San Jose on California’s Highway 101, a few miles north of the city the air changes. When you roll down the car window and inhale, you are aware of a distinctive aroma. It reminds you of something. It is not unpleasant. It is familiar, yet somehow elusive. Residents used to joke that one could make garlic bread by waving a fresh loaf of bread out the window during the garlic processing season. Yes, that is the smell, garlic—not burnt and acrid, not raw and peppery, but toasted and soft.
The city of Gilroy, California may soon lose its mantle as the Garlic Capital of the World. On April 22, organizers of Gilroy’s annual Garlic Festival announced that it was unable to meet the costly liability insurance required by the city and would be canceling the event indefinitely. Held every year since 1979 at Christmas Hill Park, the festival is the flagship event of the Santa Clara County city of 60,000 residents and operates as Gilroy’s largest fundraiser for local schools, youth groups, and nonprofit organizations. Hundreds of vendors serve garlic-flavored foods, from savory meat platters to garlic-flavored ice cream, to massive crowds over a three-day period. In 2019, the festival was the scene of a mass shooting. 17 people were injured and three people were killed, including the gunman. Organizers canceled the festival in 2020 and held a drive-thru version in 2021.
Sensing an opportunity, the Noceti Group, a Stockton-based events company, recently announced their plans to hold a new garlic festival at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds this summer, potentially featuring garlic vendors from previous Gilroy festivals. Tony Noceti of the Noceti Group—who also runs the San Joaquin Asparagus Festival—promises a multi-day extravaganza this August (sans the word “Gilroy”) with “a lot of food, a lot of people and a lot of entertainment” and similar philanthropic outcomes.
How might garlic enthusiasts respond to Noceti’s Gilroy-inspired event? Unsurprisingly, the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association was not amused. “Stockton is not the successor of our community’s homecoming event to support our essential non-profits here in Gilroy, the Garlic Capital of the World,” the Association said in a May 2, 2022 email to its subscribers. Indeed, what makes the 40-year-old South Bay festival uniquely Gilroy’s? What is the process by which food becomes iconic and emblematic of community identity? How do residents and visitors partake in the invention and subsequent consumption of a food-themed place? How do claims of “world capital” contribute to or detract from communal identity?
According to cultural anthropologist Pauline Adema, the theming of a town via promotion of a food-centric symbolic identity endows the town with identity capital. Further, hyperlocal and food-themed festivals such as Gilroy’s are cultural performances of that locale’s foodscape identity.
A combination of the words landscape and food, FOODSCAPE represents a marriage between food and landscape, both the conceptual notion of landscape and actual, physical landscapes. Foodscape implicates the multiple informative historic and contemporary personal, social, political, cultural, and economic forces that inform how people think about and use (or eschew) food in various spaces they inhabit.
What’s more, Gilroy’s assertion of capitaldom is a smart play at place-branding. (The alliterative ring doesn’t hurt either.) This strategy of aggrandizement has the effect of exoticizing a rather marginal and malodorous food—garlic. Adema argues that the Gilroy festival accelerated mainstream America’s acceptance of the previously polarizing allium. At the heart of the Gilroy Garlic Festival, however, is community. Like most community festivals, the Gilroy Garlic Festival is not orchestrated solely for entertainment or revenue-generating purposes. Over 4,000 volunteers donate time to organize and work the three-day festival, generating millions year over year for the the benefit of more than 150 charities.
If Noceti successfully reboots a garlic festival-of-sorts this summer in Stockton, festival goers may at least rejoice in its Northern California credentials. But there’s no denying that it would take decades of community building and place-making to achieve the garlicky identity capital fiercely cherished by Gilroyans.
For those craving an immediate garlic fix, there’s always the National Garlic Festival this weekend in Fresno (self-proclaimed “Garlic Capital of the USA”).
For more on the history of Gilroy’s mainstay food festival and its broader cultural implications, please see the attached portions from Adema’s Garlic Capital of the World.
Adema, Pauline. Garlic Capital of the World: Gilroy, Garlic, and the Making of a Festive Foodscape. (University Press of Mississippi: 2009), 3
Greschler, Gabriel. “A garlic festival may be on after all—but not in Gilroy.” San Jose Mercury News. May 5, 2022.
Adema, Garlic Capital of the World. 5, 21, 23, 32, 36, 45.