Midsummer is the peak of the garlic season all across the United States.
Last month, Gilroy, Calif., was the epicenter of all things garlic as that small town 30 miles south of San Jose hosted the 35th annual Gilroy Garlic Festival.
The festival's centerpiece attraction each year is the Great Garlic Cook-Off. Eight amateur chefs take to the stage to wow the judges with their original creations. First-place winner goes home with a crown of garlic and a $5,000 cash prize.
Jamie Brown-Miller of Napa, Calif., says Gilroy is the Holy Grail in the world of amateur competitive chefs. It doesn't hurt that garlic is a favorite flavor for so many people.
"Garlic is the perfect ingredient. It makes anything that much more flavorful, and the flavors linger on your tongue. It can be a subtle undercurrent or right in your face. I love, love, love garlic," she said.
Selected as a finalist but not a prize-winner for a deconstructed beef Wellington, Brown-Miller vowed to come back the next year with something "ridiculously unique." She decided to make garlic paper. "I did a lot of test runs, using rice flour and I can't remember what else. I ended up with something resembling flatbread, and I thought 'this is boring.' It wasn't until I decided to reverse-engineer meringue that I finally hit on the right process," she said.
Her Stacked Steak Napoleon layered with garlic paper won first place in 2011.
Laureen Pittman, last year's first-place winner, says she's "addicted to competition" and blogs about her obsession at www.livelaughcookeat.com. "I've been in the Pillsbury Bake-Off twice, and a bunch of others, but Gilroy is the one everybody wants to win," she said. She'd entered several times before she landed on her award-winning combination of pork belly served with a sweet-and-sour sauce and polenta.
Her inspiration was a restaurant dish featuring pork belly and her challenge was to cook a complete dish in the two hours allotted for the contest. The light-bulb moment was when she remembered her dad's use of a pressure cooker and she found a way to quickly infuse garlic flavor into her pork belly and turn out her dish in the required time.
Margee Berry of White Salmon, Wash., has won all the top prizes at Gilroy. Grilled shrimp with lemon-anchovy-caper sauce won her third place in 2000, and poblano peppers with stuffed crab and goat cheese, served with a garlic sauce, won her second place in 2004. (Once you win one of the top three prizes, contest rules require you to sit out the next three years.) Her first-place winner, a watermelon soup with Southeast Asian flavors, was inspired by the cooking classes she takes when she and her husband make their annual visits to Thailand.
As much as she loves the competition, she also enjoys the festival for the community atmosphere. "Gilroy is a really laid-back and fun competition. Everyone is friendly, and it's such a big event for their community. There's a fun party for the volunteers, and we get to hear what people do in the garlic business," she said.
Why Gilroy and why garlic? Dennis Harrigan, veterinarian and president of the 2013 festival, explained that Gilroy is in Santa Clara County and back in 1979 when the festival started, the county produced about 90 percent of the garlic grown in the United States.
Rudy Melone, president of the local community college, approached Don Christopher of Christopher Ranch, the largest garlic shipper in the United States, with the idea of celebrating the local garlic harvest. Now Gilroy calls itself the "Garlic Capital of the World." Each year, the town doubles in size as more than 100,000 visitors arrive for the three-day event. The festival involves more than 4,000 volunteers from the community. In return for giving up their town for three days every year, local nonprofits have received $9.7 million in grants from the festival proceeds. This year's festival will push that total to over $10 million.
Festival goers do more than watch the cooking competition. There's garlic for sale — pickled, braided, loose and minced — and garlic to sample from scampi and pepper steak to garlic ice cream and garlic margaritas. A "Garlic Bowl" has local universities competing to win a scholarship for their institution, and professional chefs compete in a garlic showdown, "Iron Chef"-style. And of course what festival would be complete without the crowning of a queen, in this case, Miss Gilroy Garlic?