A CRAZY IDEA
The Gilroy Garlic Festival started with a “crazy idea” by Dr. Rudy Melone.
Back in 1978, Melone, then President of Gavilan College in Gilroy, read a newspaper article about a small town in France which hosted an annual garlic festival and claimed to be the "Garlic Capital of the World." Nonsense, he thought. Gilroy's garlic production and processing were far greater. In fact, Christopher Ranch was then (and still is) the largest shipper of garlic in the world.
So Melone set about trying to convince Christopher Ranch owner Don Christopher, along with other local farmers and businesses, to celebrate the hometown crop and host a garlic festival of their own.
At first, the idea seemed downright ridiculous. Outside of Italian immigrant families, garlic at the time was considered a somewhat esoteric ingredient. It wasn’t mainstream. It certainly wasn’t gourmet. And due to its somewhat justified reputation as “The Stinking Rose,” it wasn’t something you generally shared in polite company. Most local residents were more embarrassed about Gilroy’s garlic heritage (and the town’s distinctive odor) than proud of it.
But Melone was persistent. (He was, after all, Italian.) And his love for Gilroy and for garlic proved contagious. He and Christopher enrolled a gregarious local farmer and chef, Val Filice, to prepare a few garlicky dishes and share them at a Rotary Club luncheon as a proof of concept. They invited local media and food writers as well. The lunch was a success, and city leaders agreed to help support a garlic festival in the summer of 1979.
THE FIRST FESTIVAL
The very first Gilroy Garlic Festival was held at Bloomfield Ranch in August 1979. Rudy Melone served as President, Don Christopher supplied all the garlic, and Val Filice presided as Head Chef of the festival food booths, dubbed “Gourmet Alley.” They enlisted the help of about 50 community volunteers, who did everything from peeling garlic and pouring beer to selling tickets and picking up trash. From the beginning, the plan was to donate all proceeds back to the community.
Festival organizers weren’t sure at first if anyone would come—but were quickly overwhelmed by the number of visitors. Only 5,000 tickets had been printed, so volunteers sold tickets, collected them, and then ran them back to the ticket booth to be resold.
Meanwhile, Filice had drivers racing to Monterey to get more calamari and prawns. Volunteers frantically cooked huge batches of pasta in a nearby home. And in the middle of that first day, the beer chairman called Budweiser: “Heck, forget the kegs. Start sending us the trucks!”
Despite all the chaos, the first Gilroy Garlic Festival was a tremendous success, welcoming over 15,000 guests and generating $19,000 for the local community. The event also made national headlines. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner called it “the ultimate in summer food fairs,” while the Washington Post proclaimed, “Fame is Nothing to Sniff at in Gilroy.”
GARLIC GLORY YEARS
The following year, the Gilroy Garlic Festival moved to the far more spacious Christmas Hill Park, and the date was set as the last full weekend of July. As annual attendance steadily grew over the years to come, the Festival continued to evolve. The Gilroy Garlic Festival Association was formed as a non-profit corporation with a rotating board of directors. Committees were formed to coordinate everything from Gourmet Alley and the Recipe Contest to Parking and Utilities.
The Gilroy Chamber of Commerce took on management of the ever-popular beer booths. The Rotary Club of Gilroy hosted the Wine Pavilion, featuring wine tasting from local vintners. And scores of other community residents—representing school sports teams, church groups, and local charities—signed on to volunteer every year and help raise money for their organizations.
And, true to Rudy Melone’s vision, the attitude toward garlic began to change in Gilroy—and around the world. Rather than being ashamed or embarrassed, the community embraced its newfound fame as the “Garlic Capital of the World.” And as word spread, garlic lovers from all over the globe began making pilgrimages to Gilroy to sample the fantastic food and fun while soaking up the California sunshine.
Sadly, Dr. Melone passed away in 1998. As Don Christopher later recalled, “There would be no Gilroy Garlic Festival without Rudy. He was a wonderful, tenacious man. The event was his idea, and he was the spark that made everything go."
Val Filice, who reigned for nearly three decades as the Godfather of Gourmet Alley, died in 2007. "Val was the Garlic Festival," said former Gilroy Mayor Don Gage. "He was the embodiment of community spirit." A portrait of Filice still hangs in Gourmet Alley over the giant cauldrons of marinara sauce.
As the sole remaining Festival founder, Don Christopher and the Christopher family remain active and enthusiastic supporters of the Gilroy Garlic Festival. Christopher Ranch supplies more than two tons of fresh garlic every year for Gourmet Alley and has also supported a number of other Festival-related events and projects, including the annual Miss Gilroy Garlic Festival Queen Pageant and upgrades to the Amphitheater Stage and Garlic Cook-Off Stage.
THE GILROY GARLIC FESTIVAL TODAY
Today, the Gilroy Garlic Festival remains true to the vision of its founders while at the same time embracing change and innovation.
In addition to long-time festival favorites, new dishes have been introduced on Gourmet Alley—including the world-famous Gilroy Garlic Fries. The popularity of the Great Garlic Cook-Off has inspired other exciting cooking competitions, like Champions for Charity, the iron chef-style Garlic Showdown, and the Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned Gilroy Garli-Que BBQ Challenge.
The Children’s Area has grown over the years to provide a fun family experience for Festival guests of all ages. The Arts and Crafts booths have expanded to both sides of the park and are carefully curated to highlight the finest quality artists and craftspeople. And every year the Entertainment committee books new acts to keep the music fresh and exciting.
To date, the Gilroy Garlic Festival has raised more than $11 million dollars for local schools and non-profit groups—and has given the city of Gilroy a sense of true community pride as well as instant worldwide recognition. Not bad for one man’s crazy idea!
“The Great Garlic Tale,” Jenny Midtgaard
“Dr. Rudy Melone Leaves His Legacy,” Gilroy Garlic Festival Association
The Complete Garlic Lovers’ Cookbook