Photos by Ali Zacker Gale
Since 1989, the true beginning of fall in Saugerties has been marked by a celebration of garlic on a grand scale. What began as a way for local grower Pat Reppert to promote her harvest soon became the Hudson Valley Garlic Festival, the largest event of its kind in the Northeast, efficiently run by the beneficent Saugerties Kiwanis Club. But for a two-day event that plays host to 45,000 people, it feels surprisingly local, like some bizarre and highly specific farm market grown wildly out of proportion.
Cars line both sides of the streets leading to Cantine Field and make use of every spare inch in the outfield parking lots. Attendees and vendors come from hundreds of miles away to experience this unique celebration. There are teeming crowds of people frequenting rows of vendors selling garlic-themed arts and crafts, raw garlic, pickled garlic, fried garlic, garlic braids, garlic vinegar (shots of which were offered to the more daring attendees), garlic soda and ground garlic skins — to name a few permutations.
On the afternoon I attended, some complaints about the combination of hot air and the heavy scent of garlic could be heard, but the prevailing mood was a festive one. One musician, donning a bowler’s hat and clutching several garlic sprouts remarked: “Why should the hedonist be sad when there’s so much garlic to be had?” Why indeed?
But surveying the acres of cars and booths devoted to one particular pungent bulb of the genus allium, another question came to mind. Why garlic?
According to Stan Erikson of Alpha Garlic Farms in Fort Plain, NY, there are three reasons. “One, garlic is a hardy crop and can be grown in this climate. It isn’t very weather-sensitive. Two, it’s good for human beings. Keeps you healthy. Three, it’s a profitable crop. People just love garlic.”
Donald Womack is known as “The Garlic Guy.” He runs Lindon Farm in Gilhamton, NH. A former court reporter in Boston, he bought a few bulbs, grew them and discovered there was a market for good garlic. “I really love this stuff,” he said.
According to one farmer, the bulbs can be planted almost any time of year, so long as the ground is workable; others voiced a preference for fall or spring planting. All agreed that the cloves should be planted in nutrient-rich soil, about two inches deep and 20 inches apart with their skin intact. Garlic needs a lot of sun, but prefers a temperate climate and low precipitation.
Garlic is native to Central Asia and has been consumed for ritual, medicinal and culinary purposes for over 7,000 years. Almost every part of the plant, including the head (known as the spathe), skin and bulb are used. There are over 600 varieties of the plant and just as many ways to prepare it. Varieties are classified as hardneck or softneck; the former producing the more complexly flavored gourmet bulbs, while the latter has a milder, simpler flavor, and is more commonly sold in supermarkets. The common California white garlic belongs to this latter category.
At the festival, live-cooking demonstrations abounded wherein chefs (many donning humorous garlic-themed hats) sautéed, baked, fried, sliced, diced and served the plant of the day as a complement to or as the main focus of a dish. They included Ric Orlando of New World Home Cooking and Noah Sheetz, Culinary Institute grad and former executive chef at the Governor’s Ballroom in Albany. The festival brought in many lecturers, including Tony Sarmiento, an award-winning garlic grower; David Stern, founder of the Garlic Seed Foundation and board member of its parent organization, Friends of Garlic; and Bob Dunkel, also a member of the Garlic Seed Foundation and a garlic farmer.
The Saugerties Teachers Association could be found near the entrance, painting children’s faces while parents looked on. Several Boy Scout troops were out in full force, selling reasonably priced (and garlic-infused) lunches, giving the other vendors a serious run for their money.
Everywhere one turned there was live music. “Guantanamera” could be heard next to a guy playing a proto-piano over ragtime sets with brassy horns. That former ballad, one of the best known songs of Cuba, was oddly fitting for an agrarian festival in a community, nestled between rivers and mountains, that wears its ideals on its sleeve — provided you substitute “stinking rose” for “white rose.”
I cultivate a white rose
In June and in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his hand.
And for the cruel one who would tear out
This heart with which I live.
I cultivate neither thistles nor nettles
I cultivate a white rose.
With the poor people of this earth,
I want to share my lot.
The little streams of the mountains
Please me more than the sea.