“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from the high-profile events to the fun facts only the locals know.
Sure, it’s stinky. But residents of Gilroy, Calif., the self-proclaimed “Garlic Capital of the World,” love their crop of cloves and plan to demonstrate why during the next two weekends.
The Gilroy Garlic Festival, which started in 1979 and draws 100,000 visitors, will have a new look this year. Attendees will have lots to celebrate at the first festival since 2019, when a shooting took three lives and injured 17. A year later, the festival was cancelled because of the pandemic. But it’s in full swing this weekend and July 30-Aug. 1 at the Gilroy Presbyterian Church.
New this year is a drive-thru format to take visitors through “Gourmet Alley,” featuring gobs of garlicky goodness in garlic bread, garlic fries, shrimp scampi, sandwiches packed with pepper steak or sausage, and more.
Clearly, Gilroy folks disagree with a long-ago beleaguered garlic critic who dubbed it “The Stinking Rose” and declared it unfit for polite company. Instead, they proudly tout the hard work of local farmers and ranchers. In 2019, California produced more than 209,000 tons of garlic worth $3.27 million—$2.2 million of that in Santa Clara County alone. The Gilroy Garlic Festival Association has distributed more than $12 million to the community through the years, and local nonprofits also have benefitted from the event.
We caught up with Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-District 30) and Senator John Laird (D-District 17) to talk about why they’re fans of the festival, and what garlic means to their districts.
What do you like most about the Gilroy Garlic Festival?
Overall, the Gilroy Garlic Festival is one of the best food festivals in California. This year, I’m most excited about the Drive-Through Gourmet Alley so I can experience all the garlic food experiments. Plus, this new format should help people stay cool and more easily taste the wonderful menu items our local chefs have prepared.
Laird: The Gilroy Garlic Festival is known as one of the greatest summer food festivals in California and across the globe. I appreciate that the festival brings families together, in the Garlic Capital of the World, through garlicky treats, including garlic-flavored ice cream, garlic kettle corn and garlic fries. (The festival) has helped make Gilroy a popular year-round destination for garlic lovers from around the world.
What is the economic impact of the garlic crop and the festival?
Rivas: The festival brings notice to our region as the Garlic Capital of the World while highlighting the significance of the garlic crop for our region. When you drive through Gilroy, you can smell the peeling, grating and roasting of garlic, especially in the heat of the afternoon. We are proud that the majority of the country’s garlic is grown in California, with production centered right here in Gilroy.
According to the California Farmland Trust, California produces over 90% of commercial garlic grown in the United States. The Gilroy Garlic Festival highlights all the Gilroy community has to offer, and the tourism the festival attracts is a much-welcome benefit to Gilroy and the surrounding communities, particularly following the challenges the COVID pandemic brought statewide.
Who are some of the beneficiaries of the festival, which has donated more than $12 million to local charities and nonprofits?
Rivas: The Gilroy Garlic Festival Endowment Fund was established in 2018 and provides the community an opportunity to donate to local schools and sports teams, charities and other community nonprofit organizations. In years past, they would also provide space for local groups to table at the festival and allow passers-by to donate directly to the cause of their choice. That’s not an option this year due to COVID, but I do applaud the efforts of the festival for using their platform to support our community programs.
What’s your favorite garlicky dish?
Rivas: I’d have to say that my favorite garlic-centric dish is chicken garlic pizza—it combines all of my favorite foods. Anything on pizza is going to taste great, but the extra garlic is what puts this at the top of my list.
Laird: I enjoy garlic shrimp.
What else is great about your district? What should visitors see?
Rivas: I’m incredibly lucky to be representing such a beautiful and diverse district. We have sprawling agricultural fields, rolling hills of gold and green, and an incredible coastline. We also have access to breathtaking public parks and farm-fresh food.
I believe the outdoors are for everyone. Even if you aren’t an avid hiker or camper, there is still plenty to explore. We have several state parks in our district and Pinnacles National Park. All of these public parks have a lot to offer locals and visitors, from accessible hiking trails and camping to an array of wildlife. Visitors to the parks can learn about the native animals and plants, explore the heritage of the Native American tribes who call this land home, or take a scenic drive or hike through nature.
If you’re an avid reader like me, you might want to check out the National Steinbeck Center and explore John Steinbeck’s creative legacy. I keep a copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” on the bookshelf in my office because it’s a piece of our district’s history. Steinbeck captured many of the struggles people faced throughout the Great Depression and moving out west to California. That being said, these themes are still relevant today. What sits with me is how Steinbeck captures the strength and resilience of those searching for life beyond poverty and what we can accomplish by working together and sharing responsibility.
Finally, since my district is also known as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” I have to plug our impressive agricultural industry, too. With over 3,000 farms and dozens of local wineries across Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, I highly recommend that people visit one of the farms and farmer’s markets while they’re in town. Some of these farms even allow you to pick your own produce, which is an experience I think everyone should have to fully appreciate the work that our growers and farmworkers put into feeding the nation.
Laird: Senate District 17 boasts some of the most beautiful views of the great state of California. Spanning from Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo, my district is home to some of the most beautiful regions of the Western coastline. As a Santa Cruz native, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park offers a breathtaking escape into the expanse of towering redwood trees and surrounding wildlife, while further south you can find sites like Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Hearst Castle and Bishop Peak in San Luis Obispo, and Morro Rock in Morro Bay. Closer to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, you can find the Gilroy Gardens and the Circus Trees, originally grown and created by Axel Erlandson.
These interviews were edited for length and clarity.