This winter break, I had the privilege to explore the West Coast for the first time. I visited family in Seattle before heading down to Southern California, where I embarked on a road trip from San Diego to San Francisco with two of my good friends from Tufts. It had been awhile since I had left New England; the first time I had been on a plane in two years. California is a strange land for a Yankee like me, and no part was more strange and interesting than Gilroy, California.
Ahhhh, Gilroy, where the air smells like garlic and the two largest employers are a ranch and a Spice & Vegetables company. This isn’t to say that Gilroy (which lies an hour west of Santa Cruz) is a tiny town: its population is higher than 50,000. But Gilroy does have its thing: Garlic is a Big Deal in Gilroy.
The Gilroy Garlic Festival, which is held every summer, attracted over 100,000 people last year. As we meandered down Gilroy’s main drag, Monterey Road, we noted the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, The Garlic City Cafe, Garlic City Billiards, Garlic City Barbers, and the Garlic City Casino. Murals covered every wall, celebrating the garlic of Gilroy.
My two friends and I were fascinated by this idol worship of such a specific commodity to which this town feels such a strong connection. At the urging of one of my friends, we went searching for garlic ice cream, an apparent delicacy in this town. After all, when in Gilroy, do as the Gilroys (Gilroyans? Gilroites? Gilresidents?) do.
We opened the doors of Fifth Street Coffee Roasting Company at 4pm, apparently as it was closing. As the lone employee shooed us out of the cafe, we asked her, “Do you know where we can get garlic ice cream?” She sighed and said that they were the only place where we could get it this time of year, so she kindly let us stay and order a serving. We all pooled our change to get the smallest size between the three of us.
“It’s vanilla garlic,” the woman said as she scooped our ice cream, “So it isn’t that strong.” My friends and I shot disbelieving glances at each other as we thanked her for letting us stay, and we went outside to try the “treat.”
Garlic ice cream tastes about as good as it sounds. We counted down from three and put the spoons in our mouths. The vanilla taste was nowhere to be found. In its place was concentrated garlic with a texture that is rarely paired with such a taste. I ran around the corner and spit my ice cream out onto street. I refused to swallow until I had eaten something else to mask the taste. It was, in short, the worst food experiment ever considered.
We left Gilroy with full hearts and empty stomachs. Gilroy, California: home of a lingering garlic smell, intense pride in a polarizing crop, and the worst ice cream flavor in known history.
I highly recommend visiting.