Touting Garlic's Glories

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this self-proclaimed Garlic Capital of the World, purveyors of the smelly bulbs are pooh-poohing a German study that found garlic does nothing to lower blood cholesterol levels.

The research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., made headlines last week--just a month before Gilroy's annual Garlic Festival.

No one here believes that the study will put a damper on the three-day garlic love-fest, which usually attracts more than 100,000 devotees who come to indulge in chocolate-garlic ice cream, garlic wine, garlic-stuffed olives and chocolate-garlic peanut butter cups.

Locals plan to kick off the festival season at the end of June by lighting the eight-foot Garlic Torch--a huge replica of a garlic bulb painted to resemble the real thing. The torch, meant to evoke the Olympic flame, will burn as a beacon to garlic lovers near U.S. 101, at the Gilroy offramp, until the festival ends.

"We like to say: It is chic to reek," said Tom Reed, a local businessman who calls himself the Garlic Guru and gives lectures across the country on the wonders of garlic.

Reed touts garlic's healthful properties in those seminars, and said he has no intention of changing his presentation. He said he still believes that garlic can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and swears that fresh garlic, applied as a poultice, dissolved "a really huge" wart on his finger. Garlic also has helped protect him from the common cold for years, Reed said.

"This was just one study," he said. "At most, it means that more studies need to be done."

Truth is, garlic is big--very big--business here in Gilroy, a farming community of 35,000 that you can literally smell before you see the "Welcome to Gilroy" sign.

Shops in town sell dozens of garlic products. And more people employed in Gilroy work with garlic--farming it, processing it or retailing it--than in any other industry.

The nation's largest producer of fresh garlic--Christopher Ranch--is based here, as is Gilroy Foods, California's biggest garlic dehydrating company.

But very little garlic is actually grown in Gilroy these days. The town is close enough to San Jose to have become a bedroom community for that sprawling Silicon Valley capital, and land is too dear.

So Don Christopher, owner of Christopher Ranch, now grows most of his 5,000 acres of garlic in the San Joaquin Valley.

Christopher does about $90 million in garlic sales annually. His processing and packing plants are still here in Gilroy, as are his offices and home. Christopher--who a few years ago faced the prospect of being driven from the market by inexpensive Chinese garlic and this year has seen his crop reduced by 40% by El Nino's rains--said he is not alarmed by the German cholesterol study.

He finds the appearance of rust in this year's crop far more alarming than a study of 25 men.

The fungus--which attacks the garlic's stems and literally turns them a rusty-orange color--hasn't been seen in California since 1940.

The fungus "just saps the plant's strength," he said, "and cuts the size of the bulb in half." As a result, the price of garlic will increase by about 30 cents a pound this year, Christopher said. He is lobbying state legislators to approve a fungicide to spray on fields before the next planting, hoping to eliminate the rust spores.

"I started in 1956 with 10 acres of garlic," he said. "This is the greatest business to be in."

Christopher Ranch produces about 60 million pounds of garlic annually--out of a total of 150 million pounds produced each year in California. The state produces about 90% of the nation's garlic. Garlic sales took off in America about 20 years ago, Christopher said, when Americans began to hear that salt might be bad for them.

It was in 1967, Christopher said, that he and other farmers in Gilroy got the idea of a garlic festival.

"The mayor at the time almost laughed us out of his office, he thought the idea was so ridiculous," Christopher said. " 'Who would come?' he asked us."

The festival, Christopher said, was popular from its inception and has grown into one of the largest harvest festivals in the nation. It has raised more than $5 million for local charities. But he credits the event with doing more than that.

"People used to laugh at Gilroy. They would call us Kilroy. We were made fun of. It was a nothing little town before the festival," Christopher said. "Now, 4,000 people here volunteer to put it together every year. It brings the whole community together."

This year's festival begins July 24. "People come to the Garlic Festival because they love to eat garlic, period," said Reed, who co-owns a company that produces Garlic Festival foods.

Reed and partner Caryl Simpson started out with a garlic spice mix Simpson stirred up in her kitchen 12 years ago to season stir-fry dishes. She kept her first batch in a tennis ball tube that she converted to a shaker by punching holes in the top.

The partners now sell a line of garlic-based gourmet foods at specialty shops and trade shows across the nation.

Their Garlic Festival store on Main Street has garlic braids in the windows and hanging in the doorway and a 20-foot-long concrete planter outside filled not with flowers, but with the long, green stalks of two kinds of garlic.

Reed and Simpson are building a Garlic Museum in a corner of the store that will feature displays explaining what garlic is and how it has been used through the ages.

There are four other similarly themed stores in Gilroy, three of them owned by Alex Lawson, a gregarious former chef who--like seemingly everybody in town--loves to extol the virtues of garlic.

In his Rapazzini wine tasting room--next door to his Garlic Shoppe--Lawson pours a glass of garlic white wine. "What wine could you think of that would go better with sweet-and-sour pork?" he asks a visitor.

Rushing around the room, he pulls chopped garlic, pickled garlic, garlic jelly and garlic-flavored horseradish from the shelves. He also delivers a history lesson, the gist of which is that the appreciation, cultivation and exploitation of garlic has been one continuous saga stretching from the mists of antiquity to the green fields of Gilroy.

"The Romans who marched off to conquer the world had garlic in their sandals as an antiseptic," he said. "Will Rogers came through here on the Southern Pacific and wrote that Gilroy was the only town in the world where you could marinate a steak on your clothesline."

With so many people convinced that garlic can do everything from acting as an aphrodisiac to preventing cancer, Christopher said, he is confident that the German study will soon be forgotten.

"It just makes people happy," said the 63-year-old farmer, who said he eats 10 cloves of roasted garlic every day. "I keep telling people they should distribute it in the jails, to make prisoners happier and less violent, but nobody listens to me."

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Garlic Town

* Gilroy has a population of 35,000; many residents work in garlic industry

* Home of the largest fresh garlic producer in the U.S.

* Local shops boast more than 1,000 garlic products, including garlic wine, garlic lollipops and garlic ice cream.

* Town celebrates 20th annual garlic festival on July 24, 25, 26. Event draws more than 100,000 people; features food booths, live music, children's events and garlic cookoff.

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