For 25 years, garlic lovers from near and far have flocked to North Plains, Oregon, for the annual Elephant Garlic Festival. The event was originally a community fish fry in the mid-1990s. The idea to include elephant garlic in the celebration was the brainchild of farmer Bob Gnos.
“We had this big meeting and Bob Gnos, who lived on Pumpkin Ridge, was raising elephant garlic, and we were looking for a niche [to] draw more people in,” said North Plains resident Joyce Meek Reynolds. “And Bob says, ‘Well, California is the only one that has a garlic festival. Why don’t we have a garlic festival?’ So that’s how it got started.”
Meek Reynolds was part of the group that created the festival and says she’s seen its popularity grow over the years from just locals to thousands of people who come from around the Northwest. And this year, she met garlic lovers from even further away. “We had people from Egypt yesterday,” she said during the festival. “[People] from France came.”
The three-day Elephant Garlic Festival ran Aug. 11-13 and included 5k, 10k and half marathon races, plus a classic car show, music, craft vendors and, of course, lots and lots of garlic.
“We’ve been growing [garlic] for about 40 years,” said Shawn Loughridge of Loughridge Farms, one of the longtime vendors featured at the festival. She said the bulbs were planted by chance by her mom, who thought they might be tulip bulbs.
“Turns out they weren’t,” she said. “We went ahead and let them grow to see what they were, and it turns out they were elephant garlic.”
Elephant garlic is the star of the show in North Plains, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of other garlic varieties to be found. Loughridge’s booth featured multiple varieties, including the purple Deerfield garlic and the Italian Chet’s Red in addition to elephant garlic, which she was quick to explain wasn’t exactly garlic at all.
“The elephant garlic isn’t even a true garlic,” she said. “It’s actually in the leek family, so it has more of an onion-garlic flavor to it.”
Vendors throughout the festival were also selling garlic in other forms, like jars of habanero pickled garlic, parmesan garlic popcorn and garlic-infused olive oil, which caught the eyes of Emma and Kevin Reichenthaler.
The Clackamas couple came dressed for the part: in large, white hats in the shape of bulbs of garlic.
Emma Reichenthaler explained that the hats came from the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, but they knew they wanted to dust them off for this festival too.
“This is actually a lot bigger than the Gilroy Garlic Festival, so we’re pretty excited to check it out,” she said.
One of the other garlic delicacies they were interested in trying was something a little more unique than the infused olive oil.
“We’ve had garlic ice cream in the past and we’ve had good kinds and bad kinds,” Kevin Reichenthaler said. “So I have high hopes for the ice cream here.”
The ice cream has been made for the last 12 years by Doug and Pat Meyer of Mita’s Italian Ice. While their specialty is sorbet, once a year they shift gears. Meyer explained they initially only sold their Italian ice at the festival, while the vendor next to them was making garlic ice cream.
Doug Meyer didn’t mince words when asked how the previous version was: “It was bad!”
“The way he made it, he just would go get a couple of big tubs of cheap vanilla ice cream, let it melt down a little bit … bring a couple of those big jars of minced garlic, and dump it in there,” he said.
It took about five months to perfect their own version, which included one major change — roasting the garlic. His recipe has four cups of roasted garlic in each 3-gallon tub of ice cream.
“It’s a really premium vanilla, which adds in sweetness and depth of flavor,” Meyer said. “It helps your palate adjust to it.”
Garlic lovers will have to wait until next August to taste the garlic ice cream since it’s made exclusively for the North Plains Elephant Garlic Festival.