Garlic breadth
A pungent plethora of festivals celebrate the diversity—and marketability—of this culinary, medicinal and ever-popular allium

By Dan Sullivan
October 13, 2005

In the summer of 2002, a writing assignment for Organic Gardening magazine brought me to a grand celebration of heirloom vegetables at the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. There I encountered Chester Aaron, Darrell Merrell and John Swenson—the “Dons of Garlic,” as I affectionately called them—a brain trust of elder-statesmen growers who knew a thing or two about Allium sativum. Their team-taught workshop changed the face of my garden, and the bouquet of my breath, forever.

Each fall around Columbus Day—the customary time for planting garlic—I choose the fattest cloves from the biggest bulbs of 15 to 20 varieties I’ve either grown myself or otherwise purloined, I dutifully plant them 2 inches deep in raised beds freshly dressed with finished compost, I lightly mulch them with straw, and I wait for the first garden surprise of early spring.

Garlic has grown in its appeal to market gardeners for a whole host of reasons. Cooks (and their patrons) love it, it is an extremely forgiving crop, it cures easily and stores well, it’s a high-value crop for the space required, and you can create a value-added product simply by braiding its leaves together (or by making garlic candles, soaps, chowder, ice cream, pizza, funnel cakes, essential oils and even jewelry). Add to all that the proven and purported medical benefits—from treating high cholesterol and blood pressure, hypertension and cancer to acting as a natural antibiotic—and the folklore affording the pungent little orb talisman status against vampires and other things that go bump in the night, and you’ve got the makings of a lively festival.

Garlic festivals—which usually take place in fall after bulbs have had time to cure following a July harvest—run the gamut from a few farmers selling a couple of common varieties on a quiet village street to a full-fledged town party complete with musical entertainment, food vendors, the crowning of a queen (or “Garlic Goddess”) and more garlic varieties than you can shake a crusty loaf of French bread at. Some festivals are more consumer-oriented (sell, sell, sell), others favor garlic farmers and hobby growers like myself (buy, buy, buy), while still others have a decidedly educational focus. Most are a mixture of all of the above.

The Pocono Garlic Festival in Stroudsburg, Pa., is one of those festivals that take over the town—at least several blocks of it. Carl Andrew, one of three founding members of the festival, recalls how it all began 11 years ago. “We were all part of the farmers’ market and we all grew garlic,” says the affable farmer in the 10-gallon (at least) garlic-shaped hat as he serves up garlic-laden pirogies to a young customer. “I had a small patch of garlic and it was selling real good. We said ‘We ought to have a festival at the market,’ and so we did it.” Six years ago, the festival moved downtown and the merchants couldn’t be happier. Many of them set up booths on the street—selling almost anything you can imagine with garlic on or in it—and all reap the benefits of tens of thousands of visitors to town on a Saturday.

Garlic growers tend to share a special passion for their crop of choice, and an inordinate number of them seem to have a personal story to tell. Carl Andrew is no exception. “I had a heart attack at 45, and that kind of got me interested in garlic,” he says, alluding to the curative powers of the humble bulb. “That was 1982 or 1983, and things just sort of took off from there.” Andrews now has about half an acre dedicated to garlic on his 3-acre farm.

East Coast garlic festivals—particulary in the Northeast where winters can be harsh—tend to feature more hardneck varieties (A. sativum var. ophioscorodon) than softnecks (A. sativum var. sativum). The latter is adapted to a wider range of climates—it does better where winters are moderate—and cloves tend to be clustered or layered and generally smaller than those of the hardneck varieties. Hardneck cloves form in one layer around a rigid stalk; they also tend to exhibit a wider range and intensity of flavors, making them hugely popular with chefs. Hardnecks can also be a little bit fussier to grow to maturity—particularly if you are going for really big bulbs—and they don’t keep as long as softnecks. (Most “grocery store” garlic is softneck garlic that historically hailed almost exclusively from the area of Gilroy, Calif.--where a three-day festival includes the crowning of a garlic queen. But development pressures around Gilroy, and some say the ravages of years of industrial farming, have allowed much-cheaper imports from China—and less significantly Mexico, Argentina and Brazil—to slowly take over that market.)

Rich Sisti's booth at the Garden State Garlic Festival

Garlic Greens

Not every garlic connoisseur prefers hardneck varieties. Chester Aaron, one of my original garlic mentors, lists ‘Red Toch,’—a softneck garlic that comes from Tochliavari in the Republic of Georgia—as his favorite, both for the memory of his parents’ hometown and for its exquisite flavor. Aaron, a “retired” literature professor and consummate gourmet garlic grower in Sonoma County, California, has elevated the “stinking rose” to literary status, with published books including Garlic is Life (Ten Speed Press, 1996), The Great Garlic Book (Ten Speed Press, 1997) and Garlic Kisses: Human struggles with garlic connections (Zumaya Publications, latest printing 2004).

Garlic festivals tend to be a little too over-the-top commercial for Aaron’s taste. “It’s just a bunch of hoopla,” he says, “not ‘what are your problems growers, and how do we solve them?’” Aaron lamented the loss of one such gathering, the Garlic is Life Symposium and Festival in Tulsa, Oklahoma, organized by one of the other “Dons of Garlic,” Darrell Merrell. Speakers and attendees have included David Mirelman, PhD, a biological chemist from Weitzman Institute in Rehovot, Israel; Eric Block, PhD, professor of chemistry and garlic researcher at the State University of New York (SUNY); Fred Crowe, PhD of Oregon State University and a leading authority on garlic diseases; Ron Voss, PhD, of UC Davis, an expert on managing pests in garlic; Bill Randle, an allium breeder from the University of Georgia; Walt Lyons, PhD., of in Fort Collins, Colo.; Phil Simon, PhD, a plant geneticist specializing in garlic at the University of Wisconsin; and Joachim Keller, PhD, from the Institute for Plant Genetics and Crop Research in Gaterslaben, Germany (an institution that was instrumental in preserving many heirloom varieties of garlic in former eastern-bloc nations before the Berlin Wall fell).

Aaron says it would be nice to see some of the folks who have reaped real success in the garlic business partner with a University and festival-friendly town to create a garlic gathering that offers something of substance to growers, researchers, foodies and consumers alike. (Sadly, Aaron says, Merrell didn’t find that level of support in Tulsa and ultimately tired of footing much of the bill himself.)

With more than 600 named varieties of garlic worldwide—there remains some debate as to whether all of these are distinct varieties or whether some varieties simply have more than one name—choosing a favorite can be a lifelong process. Mail order garlic seed businesses abound, but the advantage of a garlic festival is that you get to meet the farmers and touch, smell and sample their garlic (and, if you’re anywhere close to home, reap the added advantage of regional adaptability). That’s why, a few weeks after the Pocono Garlic Festival, a coworker and I climbed into his Jeep and headed for the hills again, this time crossing the boarder into New Jersey and Olde Lafayette Village for the Garden State Garlic Festival, where more than 60 varieties were reportedly on sale and at least 150 on display. We were going to buy some seed garlic.

When we finally arrived (no thanks to Mapquest), we discovered a smallish, relatively quiet venue. It didn’t take us long to find festival organizers and garlic farmers Rich Sisti and Roman Osadca hawking their wares only a few feet away from each other.

“Gilroy and Saugerties [New York, home of the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival] are the two big garlic capitals on the East and West coasts,” says the lanky and affable Osadca, a pharmaceutical engineer by day and a garlic farmer about every other waking minute. “Nobody ever heard about New Jersey.” Osadca and Sisti set out to change all that. What the Garden State Garlic Festival lacks, for the time being, in vendor numbers, it makes up for in quality educational materials. And, thanks to Sisti, there are more varieties for sale here then I have seen anywhere else. (While Osadca grows 152 different varieties on his 150-acre farm less than a half hour to the south, he’s only brought three varieties into town to sell. Four German Whites, three Legacies, and two Musiks—hardnecks all—go into a “Cook’s Sampler Pack” for $10, and sales have been brisk.)

“We’re only four years old,” Osadca says of the fledgling festival, “but every year we’re getting better.”

"There’s a fine line between not enough and way too much. We started getting on this scale where we had to sell it, because there was just way too much of it."
It's clear from talking to the other vendors that this is the man to buy seed garlic from, and he offers us an attractive price if we’ll just wait until he packs up so we can follow him home (he hasn’t brought along quite the poundage we require). Sisti chuckles in the background as official closing time comes and goes and Osadca continues to talk garlic relentlessly with any straggler who will lend him an ear (come to think of it, everyone he ropes in ends up buying something).

Finally we arrive at Osadca’s solar home overlooking the 150-acre Valley Fall Farms.

“We’re just like many small farms,” Osadca says. “To be able to do it on a small scale, especially organic, you end up having to have a regular job." When Roman’s wife was laid off from a job as a food chemist, he says, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a full-time farmer (dairy goats, laying hens and grass-fed beef are also part of the operation.) “You know how to make a small fortune in farming?” Osadca quips. “Start with a big fortune.”

Despite the admonishment from one who clearly knows what he is talking about, I am tickled when we leave two hours later with our haul—70 pounds of seed garlic—and wonder if this signals a leap from hobbyist to farmer (or just a foolish lark). Then I recall the words of Paul Milenkowic, another garlic farmer I’d talked with a few weeks before, and I wonder if there’s really a difference. “When I started out, the biggest thing was just the enjoyment of the garlic and not having a patch to last you long enough,” he had told me. “But there’s a fine line between not enough and way too much. We started getting on this scale where we had to sell it, because there was just way too much of it.”