Rae Quigley

About Rae Quigley’s Thesis Project

Rae Quigley

The Stinking Rose: A Food Festival and Its Playful Production of Social Order

The pungent odor of garlic famously fills drivers’ noses as they pass through the town of Gilroy. Garlicky scents waft not from farms and fields, however, but from the Gilroy Foods processing plant, where workers and machines crush, dehydrate, and “acidify” garlic for frozen dinners, condiments, and casserole mixes. Garlic bulbs arrive from China in ever-increasing quantities to be processed in Gilroy. In fact, only three garlic farmers remain in town, as suburbanization and commerce encroach from nearby Silicon Valley. Developers are excavating soil exhausted from decades of garlic production to build gated communities and townhomes. And as agricultural regions suburbanize, agritourism, an emerging economy, thrives by providing supplemental revenues, integrating industries, and luring urban tourists. In Gilroy, residents embrace the town’s agricultural identity by hosting the Gilroy Garlic Festival one weekend each July. The festival, the crux of the town’s agritourist economy, attempts to provide stability for a community in flux. Bringing in millions of tourist dollars, it generates substantial economic as well as social, cultural, and political significance. Through spectacle, ritual, and play, the festival produces a positive regional identity that promotes the town and distracts from the fact that fewer and fewer local farmers are growing the crop.Agribusiness and supermarket sponsors host festival offerings that shape visitors’ perceptions of the industries they represent. Lighthearted dramas in the form of competitions entertain spectators through the social function of play. A garlic production competition paints a jovial picture of farm labor for visitors while endeavoring to affirm the town’s rural status. As one person’s work becomes another’s leisure, the daily lived experience of laborers becomes obscured. Packaged as a tourist offering, the performance of garlic production excludes long hours, pesticide exposure, and low wages, and it fixes racial identities according to socioeconomic class.

By contrast, a cooking competition held at an elaborate stage with multiple kitchens attracts elite visitors and reflects a growing gourmet market. Local chefs make appearances, their competition parodying Food Network programming. Gestures and movements follow not only the scripts of recipes, but also those of celebrity chefs. Announcers provide a jovial play-by-play and showcase aesthetically arranged plates for spectators, who consume with their eyes and ears as if watching television. Festival organizers, who refer to the celebration as “America’s premier summertime food festival,” attempt to elevate the “quality” of the visitors by increasingly aligning the event with all things gourmet. Cooking performances reinforce standards of excellence by honoring French traditions and their time-honored social hierarchies. Frequent tributes to preparation eclipse the details of production, and thus celebrate gastronomy over agriculture.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival aspires to produce depictions of social reality that are mythic and idealized, nostalgic and wholesome, ritualized and celebrated, bought and sold. All such food festivals demand collective community involvement and playful agritourist participation, but they are nevertheless divided by class, riddled with ironies, and mediated by industry marketing.