We rode down the line, past the line, through it: the slice in the sky where the fog stops and the blue begins.
The California Coast and the Central Valley: there’s more than just a fog bank that separates the two. They’re culturally two different worlds. One is liberal, cultured, Priuses and windbreakers all year round. The other is hot, flat, migrant and dusty, rumbling trucks and fruit stands, too-neat rows of too-green produce lining the highway, whipping past your window in a monotonous flipbook, eye-numbing and strangely hypnotizing.
To us coastal folks, the Central Valley is a hazy strip of heat and pesticides, a nebulous region of towns we’ve heard of in passing, maybe driven through, but never really experienced past a gas station or two. Which is why Gabe and I had decided to stop in Gilroy, a typical agricultural Central Valley town, on our drive back to the Bay. That, and the garlic.
The Gilroy Garlic Festival is one of those things I’d heard about my whole life, but never been to. I wasn’t even really sure where Gilroy was. It’s one of those small-town events that put the place on the map, gives it some sort of name recognition to city folk. You get the feeling that the whole town lives for Garlic Festival weekend, that it’s their moment to shine—or more accurately, to waft.
We snaked along the single-file traffic leading to the parking lot. Everything was agriculture: produce stands, the Garlic Shoppe, a garlic restaurant, garlic paraphernalia. People with coolers stood on the roadside selling bottles of “ice-cold water, $1 here, $3 at the festival.” The town was amped.
We tromped across the dirt parking lot, past port-o-potties and shuttle bus lines, volunteers with bull horns, in towards the banners and balloons and cloud of cooking garlic.
It wasn’t cheap: $17 to get in. It didn’t matter. We were in it to win it.
At first, it was kind of disappointing—all the usual festival stuff: cheesy craft booths and “funky” bands, frozen lemonade (not garlic-infused). I was expecting some sort of kitschy throw-back vibe, a state fair kind of atmosphere. I was expecting uber-ridiculous, inventive garlic food, garlic everything.
But as we wandered more, went deeper into the booths and stands, the subtler ridiculousness revealed itself. And then we found this:
A flaming garlic effigy. How metal is that?
We went for it. We didn’t care that everything cost $5 and the lines were long and the sun was brutal. We wanted the full experience.
That’s right—garlic ice-cream. This is one of the festival’s great claims to fame that I’d heard about. And it’s ice-cream. So I had to have it. Oddly enough, they served it in a half cantaloupe. Not so sure about the culinary success of that, but I could appreciate the eco-friendliness.
Gabe was obsessed with finding deep-fried garlic. When he succeeded, we sat down on a hay bale and indulged in our treats (dipping deep-fried garlic into garlic ice-cream: amazing). One of the bands had broken into a cover of an obscure, early Johnny Cash song. As the families trundled by in the afternoon heat, there was something really sweet about the whole thing, something All-American in a way that I once scoffed at.
And then we found this dude:
While most of the booths were of the folk-art and rip-off variety ($20 for a flattened glass bottle window hanger), there were some hidden gems in the rows of awnings:
“Gourmet Alley” was the closest thing to the state fair vibe I found. They seemed to serve all the same fare as the rest of the festival; the fonts on their banners were just of a more dignified variety. There was a cook-out section complete with demonstrations and seminars, where local hot shots flexed their garlic prowess. It was all proudly and unironically sponsored by Foster Farms (complete with chicken-shaped balloons bobbing overhead). We may have only been an hour and a half from the Bay Area, but the food culture was was a whole nuther world: purely All-American.
And in a way, beyond the deliciousness of garlic, that’s what I been looking for, hoping to find at the festival: America.
There’s a kind of beautiful part to participating in a culture, in mainstream culture. Growing up in a city, and especially in a place as distinct as the Bay Area, you don’t get a lot of chances to indulge in Americana—we’re all about film festivals and Critical Masses and dirty punk shows in dingy warehouses.
But there’s this American mythology, this agrarian life, a “simple life,” that’s always been there: a vague background noise, aired on old sitcoms, tucked into dusty paperbacks, into the heart of the big, wide country that I fly over and past, but never stop in. I’ve never experienced it, never lived it, observed it from a distance, as the Other.
I think us city people feel alienated from that culture. We judge it (“uneducated, small-minded, uber-Christian bigots”), and are afraid it was judge us (especially if we’re something other than straight, white, native-born). There’s a kind of deep distrust—“that isn’t me, can’t be me, not ever me.” There’s something lonely about existing in something other than the predominate culture.
It was nice, for an afternoon, to feel like in some small way, I can be a part of that too, that that’s in me as well: America. Never thought I’d say that.
And sweating garlic for the next day and a half was fun too.