The unhappiest looking group of visitors at last weekend's North Plains Elephant Garlic Festival was a pack of greyhounds. Several of the sleek dogs were strolling in front of a stand that sold garlic dog biscuits, but, despite the sales pitch from the hawkers, the dog owners were not biting. They seemed to be the only fans of the stinking weed who were not.
Every year, the region's garlic growers tout the virtues of the bulb with a weekend celebration, and thousands of allium aficionados gorge themselves on a range of garlic-infused food and drink. While a few vendors of smaller and more pungent kinds of garlic--California Late, Italian Red--tried to hold their own at this year's festival, the larger and milder elephant variety had the greater clout. A 30-foot papier-mâché pachyderm standing next to a 10-foot papier-mâché head of elephant garlic clearly showed who was boss.
I had expected the site to reek with enticing pungency, though not quite the kind the Roman poet Horace lamented could drive one's lover to retreat to the far side of the bed. "More harmful than hemlock," he bemoaned. (He might have also invoked that apothegm, "A man who eats garlic lives a long life, but a lonely one.") But the aroma of pizza and burritos was more evident than that of garlic. The North Plains affair was olfactorally low-key, and only the fried garlic chips--perhaps the best single item sold at the festival, by Chic To Reek, Inc.--left your mouth unkissable. Perhaps this is understandable; the great secret, unspoken at the festival for obvious reasons, is that the Paul Bunyanesque elephant garlic (a single head has been known to weigh up to one pound) is not a true garlic at all, but merely a relative of the leek! Elephant garlic lacks the intensity and the odorousness of the smaller varieties. But don't tell that to the mountain men and swarms of swole-belly macho types at the fair, bragging about their maws full of fire.
The event seemed more like a fast-food court with the word "garlic" highlighted on the signs. Thus, "garlic mojo pork sandwich," "garlic grilled chicken pepper sausage," and "garlic potato soup"--items which could be served elsewhere without surprising anyone with the presence of garlic in the recipe. Of course, at such celebrations the fun is tracking down food (and especially drink) where the addition of garlic seems utterly mad. But why go to the trouble? Garlic in lemonade is a nice way to ruin a perfectly good beverage, while garlic in beer gets lost in the brewing and is barely noticeable to the drinker. And then there's "Chateau de Garlic," a wine probably mediocre to begin with that could only get worse when spiked with garlic. Why is it, I wondered, that some wine might go splendidly with garlic, but put the garlic in the same wine and it's a disaster?
Disappointingly--though, on second thought, perhaps not so disappointingly--the garlic ice cream had run out before I got to its booth. "Come back, tomorrow," the sweet garlic ice-cream lady shouted, but I decided to pass. I can't quite imagine a scout from Ben and Jerry's heading up to North Plains to search out a new flavor.
The best booths at the festival stuck to the thing itself: Gnos Garlic Company sold sacks of elephant garlic so gigantic you'd think they came out of Woody Allen's Sleeper, and other vendors gave out samples of various kinds of raw garlic. Clearly mainlining the stuff is the way to go. There was also a "shop" selling garlic sauces, garlic marinades, garlic dressings, garlic purée, bottles of jalapeño peeled garlic, and pickled garlic.
These folks take things seriously. A woman vending garlic-logo tee shirts sported a braid of the bulbs, like a bulky headband. A fellow in a garlic costume waddled around and sneered at another man sporting a pumpkin costume; that man was advertising a "punkin' chunkin" contest next month at Lake View Farms, and it looked as if pumpkin man had invaded garlic turf.
Late in the day, there was a crowning of Mr. and Mrs. Garlic. In this event, a few reeky souls get up on stage and tout garlic's benefits, one man preaching as if from a bulby pulpit. In the past, having a physique that resembled a head of garlic gave you a leg up in the judging, but no longer. This year you had to answer questions. For what did Greek athletes use garlic? What vitamins does garlic contain? What did the ancient Egyptians believe about garlic? (Answer to the third question: that it aided fertility, though the Pharaoh might have fed it to his pyramid-building slaves to provide stamina.) The usual virtues were trotted out: anti-vampire powers, medicinal value. But no one touted my favorite: the Romans used to throw boiled garlic seeds on their fields to protect the young plants; hungry birds would eat the seeds and, for some unexplained reason, fall asleep, whereupon the farmers gathered them up and took them to a non-agricultural location. Mr. and Mrs. Garlic each get a prize (a T-shirt) and promise to show up next year to lead North Plains' Stinking Rose
parade. Portland's Rose Festival Parade need not fear.