Where we walk in search of other worlds: The St. Louis Garlic Festival

Where we walk in search of other worlds: The St. Louis Garlic Festival

It was hot. It was humid. It was sticky. It was smelly. Farmer Brown walked around barefoot, and I ate a 1/4-pound of cloves at the St. Louis Garlic Festival.

The St. Louis Garlic Festival  is held annually in the Carondelet neighborhood. Don’t know where Carondelet is? Think about the furthest South you’ve ever gone in St. Louis. Ted Drewes’? Tower Grove? To get to Carondelet you’ve got to blow past both, take interstate 55 towards Memphis. Just before you leave city limits, take a right. Now, you’re in Carondelet. The neighborhood is colonial-old, but has the same hollowed-out look of brick and weeds typical of post-industrial cities. The area is best known for Carondelet Park, which is the third-largest park in St. Louis and a plant that produces 250 million pounds of phosphate and phosphoric acid products per year.

But, I was here for the garlic.

You smelled it first. A small city block was cordoned off, and a dozen or so stands lined the street. There was the usual fare: a taco truck, a guy on an open grill making burgers and a couple of community action booths. Iron Barley Eating Establishment, the restaurant hosting the Garlic Fest, staffed a mini pavilion that was complete with a bar and pulled pork sandwiches. In full view there was a whole pig on a spit roasting on open coals. Actually, I shouldn’t say “whole” because the pig’s feet were cut off and piled off to the side, possibly for later consumption. As Babe was rotating, all dripping and sticky, a van was serving garlic ice cream. A cursory lick revealed that, yes, the ice cream did taste very much like garlic, and it tasted pretty good. There were hints of rosemary too.

At the way back was a farmer’s stand, selling garlic of all variations: Italian, red Italian, Inchelium red, Susanville, Western rose and Polish softneck. The garlic was the main event, but the stand also had melons, sweet corn, black plums, artichokes, eggplants and turnips.

The crowd was pretty good for a day so hot that you could feel the soles of your shoes melt to the asphalt. One festivalgoer was dressed in a handmade garlic costume that looked an awful lot like Oogie Boogie from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

There was also a band—the kind of band you’d expect to see at a local fair. There was the orange-haired girl with a Misfits tee shirt on guitar and vocals, the skinny kid with shoulder-length hair and plaid shorts on drums and the heavyset ginger, also on guitar. Their set list contained Rock Band classics. Everything they played was loud.

But the highlight of it all, was the raw garlic-eating competition. Eight other contestants and I each got five minutes to try to eat ½ a pound of garlic. There were cameras. Everyone was watching. I nearly threw up.

Garlic, when cooked, has a strong but mellow flavor. Garlic, when uncooked, does not. Raw garlic is spicy like a hot pepper and has the consistency of a carrot. The first bite isn’t so bad, but each new clove you chomp down on ramps up the heat factor. By the third bite, you’re sweating, and by number 10, you’re thinking of a dignified way to cry. The only way to circumvent the heat is to swallow the cloves whole. That’s what the 13-year-old girl who won the competition four years ago did when she set the festival record.

The competition was presided over by a barefoot man in jeans and a stained green tee shirt. While we consumed, he spouted off garlic’s magical health properties (very few of which a cursory Google search could corroborate).

I did not win, nor was it close. In my stupor following the contest, I thought in that moment how far removed I was from the Washington University campus.

To get to the Garlic Festival from Wash. U., you first need to take the Hampton Avenue exit of I-64 South. On that road, you’ll pass a Steak ‘n Shake. A little known fact about Steak ‘n Shake is that it’s a popular spot for Chancellor Mark Wrighton, who’s a fan of their double steak burger with lettuce and mustard. He usually frequents the one on Manchester Avenue, but he’s been to the one on Hampton on occasion. I mention all this because Steak ‘n Shake represents a symbolic edge of the “Wash. U. bubble”— a colloquial term for the urban tunnel vision that extends west to east along the central corridor from the Saint Louis Galleria to the Arch on the banks of the Mississippi. It’s also a self-deprecating term meant to point out that entitled Wash. U. students rarely explore the city of St. Louis beyond its well-manicured neighborhoods.

And there is plenty of truth to that. Neighborhoods in the bubble, like Clayton, the Central West End and downtown, are popular with Wash. U. students because they are the most tourist friendly, and most of us—whether we like it or not—are tourists.

We also shouldn’t be too harsh on ourselves. Our peripherals are limited just as much by convenience as they are by choice. The places I talked about are served by a city metro that runs almost exclusively along that East-West corridor. Two of those metro stops are on the Wash. U. campus, and students are able to sign up for a mass-transit pass for free rides (with the cost of tuition, of course). The only public transportation option for those looking to head North-South are buses which—let’s face it—are difficult to understand. There are other ways to get around, but Uber comes with a price tag and not everyone owns a car. So, in the same way you’d call a leak in the roof a water feature, Wash. U. students stay in the bubble because it is easier.

All of this means that for many Wash. U. students—including myself—what lies to the north and south remains a mystery.

After the garlic eating contest, I felt the need to do at least some formal reporting. I started by talking to the important-looking man tending to the pig, but he immediately pointed to a man hustling up the street toward us and told me to talk to him.

Stained green t-shirt?

Jeans?

Bare feet?

It was the same guy from the eating contest! He introduced himself to me as Mark Brown, but from what I hear, people also call him “Farmer Brown” and “Mark Garlic.” Brown beckoned me to follow him, and we raced around the festival talking about garlic. He strode bravely across 90-degree blacktop, unprotected toes probably roasting like weenies.

“I believe in dirt therapy,” Brown said, after setting a crate of figs down in front of two customers. “I believe in keeping my feet in touch with the earth. Mind you, there are times where I’m going to be wearing socks, I’m going to be wearing shoes—[the] health code dictates certain things. But for the most part, I’m much happier like you see me now: simple, plain, the way I was born.”

Brown takes the same approach to his day job as head of the Gateway Garlic Farms, an urban farming community with operations all around St. Louis. They grow crops and raise small livestock organically on land that they own or on abandoned lots around the city.

“We grow food on the other side of the planet and ship it here and grow food here to ship it there,” Brown said as he showed me large artichokes they grew, despite the fact that such vegetables typically prefer a more Californian climate.

“While you talk to me, you must wear this.” Brown grabbed a garlic-shaped knitted hat and stuck it on my head.

A staunch believer in the power of garlic, Brown started the festival 12 years ago in his backyard as a way for local growers to swap seed. Five years later, it moved into the community garden. Now, the Garlic Festival is in its seventh iteration.

Brown is a busy man, so I didn’t get to talk with him for too long. One of his assistants, Bruce, helped answer a few questions. Bruce is a matchstick of a man. He talks with a rural accent and is missing most of the teeth in his lower jaw. He did tell me that one of the biggest issues with urban farming is what he calls “opportunists”—people who sneak into their plots and steal tools. Other than that, the process is a lot like any other agricultural operation. All of this information was backed by a soundtrack of “Enter Sandman” and “Sweet Escape.”

My time at the Garlic Festival ended. On the drive back, I passed the Steak ‘n Shake threshold and melded seamlessly back into the Wash. U. bubble, garlicky breath in tow.  

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