How Gilroy, California Became The Garlic Capital Of The World

Garlic braids hanging
Garlic braids hanging - Salima Senyavskaya/Getty Images

Northern California, about 80 miles south of San Francisco and 25 miles inland from Monterey Bay, is a town devoid of vampires. It's Gilroy, known as the garlic capital of the world and home to an annual garlic festival, the largest garlic farm in America (among others), garlic murals, and a garlic theme park. The town has been famous in the U.S. for its garlic -- and as a place you smell before you see -- since the early 1930s when Will Rogers, movie star and cowboy personality, wrote that it was "The only place in America where you can marinate a steak by hanging it on a clothesline."

In the late 1920s, Jimmy Hirasaki, an immigrant from Japan, became the first to commercially cultivate garlic in Gilroy. He found that the land in the South Valley was perfect for growing garlic, and before too long, Hirasaki was farming 1,500 acres of it. More garlic farms and processors popped up over the decades. In 1956, Christopher Ranch was founded — to this day, it claims to be the largest domestic producer of garlic, sometimes accounting for half of the U.S.'s garlic crop. Gilroy hosted its first garlic festival in 1979, an event that has secured the claim to fame for Gilroy as the garlic capital of the world since its inception. It is now in its 44th year as a beloved three-day celebration of all things garlic and all things Gilroy, and people travel from far and wide to celebrate Gilroy garlic.

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The Gilroy Garlic Festival

Gilroy Garlic Festival sign
Gilroy Garlic Festival sign - Mario Tama/Getty Images

Gilroy wasn't always considered the garlic capital of the world. The story of the garlic festival allegedly begins with local professor Dr. Rudy Melone reading about a French town with a garlic festival that claimed the title. In full belief that Gilroy deserved the accolade instead, Melone decided to get Gilroy the garlic press he thought it deserved.

According to the official Garlic Festival website, garlic wasn't beloved then, and it took some coaxing to get the town on board. Melone recruited Don Christopher of Christopher Ranch and a local chef to host a garlic-laden lunch event, inviting media, and it worked — the inaugural garlic festival was held in August 1979.

The festival has been a success since the very first one, which outperformed attendance expectations three times over. The Gilroy Garlic Festival even holds a Guinness World Record for the largest attendance at a garlic festival, with 109,067 visitors in 2011. That's almost twice the town's population descending upon Gilroy to celebrate garlic over three days yearly.

Events include a charity golf game, a seated orchard dinner, live music, and — of course — a lot of garlicky food. Festival-goers line up to eat garlic bread, scampi, pepper steak sandwiches, marinated mushrooms, Gilroy garlic fries, and Italian sausage sandwiches. Adventurous options include dishes like garlic pineapple upside-down waffles, and garlic ice cream. The festival has been Gilroy's pride for decades.

Competition Is Growing

Boxes of Christopher Ranch garlic
Boxes of Christopher Ranch garlic - Bloomberg/Getty Images

Although Gilroy has held its title as the garlic capital of the world since that first festival in 1979, there's some competition growing. The festival itself has been on shaky ground for a few years; organizers blamed the city's prohibitive insurance requirements, the COVID-19 pandemic, and money trouble. It continues to host the golf, live music, and orchard dinner events, but the Gilroy festival otherwise shuttered in 2022 and is now a papery shell of what it was.

A new garlic festival popped up in 2019: The National Garlic Festival in Fresno — and it's here for Gilroy's title. The founder of the festival, Peter DeYoung, claims that Fresno has produced more garlic than Gilroy for some time. DeYoung told local news, "Most people don't realize that Fresno County is the true garlic capital of the United States, and has been for a very long time." According to the EPA, Fresno County accounted for 86% of all California garlic farm acreage in 2001. A 2020 report showed that Fresno produced 77% of all domestic garlic.

Mark Borba, CEO of Fresno's Borba Farms and chairman of the California Garlic and Onion Research Advisory Board, told Valley Ag Voice the Gilroy farms are succumbing to white rot. While Gilroy is still responsible for processing the majority of the garlic, very little is actually grown there anymore. "Fresno County is actually the garlic capital of the world," DeYoung said, "so it's our turn to take the crown back."

Read the original article on Daily Meal.