Gilroy: A fascinating history with more than a hint of garlic

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Lori Guerriero was on her knees cooing at and cajoling 14-month-old Alexis Garcia, the son of a friend, to smile at her while she tried to take his picture. Alexis was much more interested in me, though, a stranger with his own camera trying to capture some of the splashes of beauty at Syngenta seed farm here in the southern reaches of the Santa Clara Valley.

It is a blindingly pretty spot. Despite the sci-fi sounding name, Syngenta is a major world producer of flower seeds. The farm at the western edge of Gilroy used to be the locally owned Goldsmith Seeds, a name familiar to home gardeners, before it was bought out two years ago. On this crisp morning, with the sun climbing above the Diablo Range to the east, the flowers were in full bloom, a blazing display of one small piece of the Gilroy region’s efforts to build a local agri-tourism business.

The big attraction, of course, is the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, now in its fourth decade and expected to draw about 100,000 people to this small farm community during the July 23-25 weekend. It’s the ultimate in do-gooder events, with thousands of local volunteers working to raise more than $500,000, half to be distributed to 150 local agencies.

At heart the festival is a semi-campy tribute to the stinking rose, part country fair (yes, there is a Miss Gilroy Garlic) and part embrace of pop culture with a garlic cook-off among local contestants and an on-demand Garlic Showdown, emceed by Fabio Viviani of Bravo’s “Top Chef” show (and Toluca Lake’s Firenze Osteria restaurant), in which four Bay Area chefs will have two hours to prepare full meals using a mystery ingredient. And garlic, of course.

Yet there’s more to Gilroy than the annual garlic throw-down. Gilroy could do a better job trumpeting its history and its agriculture, but it’s a nice spot for a weekend getaway, or as part of a trip through a largely hidden pocket of old California with more than a dozen nearby Santa Clara wineries separated from Watsonville and Monterey Bay by a beautiful 45-minute drive through the Santa Cruz Mountains’ Hecker Pass.

The flowers here at the Syngenta complex are not to be missed. The manicured gardens would fit right in at a suburban estate, the beds lush with powder-blue carpet flowers, spikes of pink and white gladiolas, thick clusters of black-and-gold pansies and orange-ruffled ranunculus. At least I think that’s what they were. None of the plants is identified, an odd omission in a garden aimed at potential Syngenta customers. Doors to the growing sheds carried “authorized personnel only” signs. A little poke around the workspace would have been fun.

That reflects one of the undercurrents here. The region is an uncut diamond, with much of the agriculture industry that supported Gilroy since it began in the mid-1800s largely out of reach. The reasons are varied. Farmers and processors worry about liability around sharp farm and factory gear and about food safety issues, said Patsy Ross, marketing director for the Gilroy-based Christopher Farms, one of the nation’s top garlic produces and processors.

And there aren’t as many farms that still grow garlic, Gilroy’s contemporary raison d'être. Some gave it up under pressure from Chinese imports — even garlic can fall victim to globalization — and because of the peculiarities of growing garlic, which drops in quality if it is grown in the same soil more than once every four or five years.

But one of the key factors is the urbanization of the Santa Clara Valley, which has reduced available farm space. The city has grown from about 31,000 people in 1990 to an estimated 50,000 in 2008, according to the U.S. Census. Guerriero, who moved to Gilroy from San Jose around 1980, witnessed the shift as small roadside motels gave way to chains, particularly near the exits off U.S. Highway 101. On the city streets, familiar faces have been swallowed by the influx of strangers.

“You used to be able to go and see everybody at Nob Hill Market,” a local supermarket, Guerriero said as Alexis spun around her legs. “Now there’s not that much farming being done any more.... In some ways, it’s sad. In other ways, that’s progress.”

Compared with the endless pavement of Southern California, though, Gilroy could be Mayberry. And it was that desire to taste the rural past that brought me here.

The fastest route to Gilroy from Los Angeles is Interstate 5 through the Central Valley, then west along California Highway 152, which passes Casa de Fruta, just east of Gilroy. Being a lover of inspired kitsch, I was looking forward to this — a fruit stand that had morphed into an RV park with a small cluster of amusements, including a small-gauge railroad and merry-go-round.

It was less than expected but still worth the stop. I poked into the shops, which sell a range of dried fruits and fresh farm staples, and an array of regional wines. I almost bought a bottle of pomegranate wine just to see what it tasted like but, for once in my life, resisted an impulse.

The next day was reserved for getting to know Gilroy. Side streets off the main drag are lined with heavily shaded, century-old wood-frame houses, many with broad porches that make you think of hot afternoons and glistening glasses of iced tea. The main drag, Monterey Road, has too many vacant storefronts in these recessionary times, but the charming Lizarran Tapas has taken over the former City Hall anchoring a downtown stretch with a bowling alley, a handful of small and busy Mexican restaurants and a fun cluster of antiques malls.

After my visit to the seed farm, I headed for brunch at a local favorite, OD’s Kitchen on Martin Street just off Monterey, and it didn’t disappoint. Carved out of two adjoining storefronts in an old building, it’s a basic small-town diner with customers and waitresses hailing one another by name, and the close-packed table making even dining alone an intimate experience.

After poking into the antiques malls I drove for a couple of hours around the farmlands and the city neighborhoods, trying to get a feel for the place, which was workday sleepy. Early afternoon I dropped into the Gilroy Museum in an old Carnegie Library, one of hundreds the industrialist had built in his later years, as he was trying to buy his way into heaven. The museum is small but pleasant and effective as it traces the evolution from Spanish land grants to hay-and-grain farmland to the first urban stirrings in 1850 as a stagecoach stop between San Jose and Monterey.

Like many other places, the arrival of the railroad brought growth — and markets for tobacco and cigars, then dairy and cheeses, then prunes until after World War I, when local Japanese farmers started growing garlic.

As I left the museum, I was thinking about other driving trips in which I had skirted Gilroy, which announces itself during the summer with the pungent smell of garlic. And I thought back to something Guerriero had mentioned about life here a decade ago. With processing plants churning tomatoes into sauces and garlic into condiments, it used to smell, she said, as though she was living in an Italian restaurant.

Progress might be changing the place, I thought, but that’s not a bad legacy for a place to have.