To Margaret Leitch, garlic is much more than just a seasoning -- it's a way of life.
For starters, she eats several cloves of raw garlic each day. "It brings me happiness and energy," she says with an air of reverence for the bulb, which has become the aromatic center of her universe. Her license plates read "GARLIC," her business card has the words "Chief Bulb Head" printed under her name, and the phone number for her mail-order garlic business is (800) RU-GARLIC.
Leitch is a partner in a store in Doylestown, Pa., called the House of Garlic. It sells everything from garlic candy to garlic-shaped bird houses. A resident of Gaithersburg, Leitch works for a computer software firm in Maryland during the week and at her store on weekends.
On Saturday and Sunday, Leitch's worship of garlic will reach new heights -- the first Washington Garlic Festival, organized by her, will take place. It'll be something like Woodstock with a different aroma wafting in the air.
The festival will be held at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Gaithersburg. There will be music, entertainment, magic shows, cooking demonstrations, food tasting, crafts, games, contests and, of course, garlic -- lots and lots of garlic.
Leitch, 30, was inspired to create the festival after visiting Gilroy, Calif., the self-proclaimed "Garlic Capital of the World," two years ago. The town plays host to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the granddaddy of all garlic festivals. It has attracted nearly 2 million people in the 17 years since it began. And the success of the festival has spearheaded a full-fledged garlic movement. Embraced by the health-conscious and revered by chefs, garlic has shed its image as a breath-wrecker and become the darling child of a growth industry. From 1975 to 1994, U.S. per-capita consumption of garlic nearly tripled, zooming from 0.6 pounds to 1.6 pounds.
Entire cookbooks have been devoted to garlic. Health-food stores are well stocked with garlic preparations and tablets. And in San Francisco, a place called the Stinking Rose bills itself as a garlic restaurant, adopting the motto "It's chic to reek."
Leitch wants to prove that garlic worship is not just a West Coast phenomenon. To bridge the two coasts, she is bringing the mayor of Gilroy to Gaithersburg for the ribbon-cutting at the festival. She thinks Maryland is ripe for a garlic festival because the bulb is grown here and there are many garlic-infused ethnic cuisines represented in the state's diverse population.
Leitch is organizing the festival with Nick Sciurba, a co-worker at the software firm and her business partner in the Doylestown store. Sciurba had heard Leitch tout garlic for so long that he finally challenged her three years ago to do something with her obsession.
"I used to listen to her go on about garlic this and garlic that. I told her to do something about it if you love it so much," he recalls. He now helps her manage the House of Garlic, which will celebrate its first anniversary in September.
"I didn't realize the depth that this food has to it," says Sciurba, 48. "Not only is it really good for you, but it tastes great in just about anything. People are so passionate about it. We get everyone from the robust Italian who cooks with it, to the upscale couples whose children bring them into the store because they [the children] love garlic."
"We've had a tremendous response so far," Leitch says. "There are a lot of garlic lovers out there, and each one has their own garlic heritage, their own garlic stories."
Leitch's garlic story begins when she was a young girl growing on a farm in upstate New York. Her father had each member of the family eat a clove of raw garlic each day to fight colds and viruses. It was a habit that Leitch has continued. She now eats garlic sandwiches every evening, three cloves of sliced garlic with a slice of tomato on bread.
"I get excitement and fulfillment from garlic," she says. Some of her co-workers at the software firm say she also sometimes gets something else from garlic -- a noticeable aroma that comes through her pores. And a few of those colleagues find it offensive.
"They don't understand the benefits of it," she contends. "Garlic may lower blood pressure, fight infection, prevent colds and lower cholesterol. And it's not just a spice, it's a side dish."
For the uninitiated, the garlic festival in Gaithersburg will provide an introduction to the myriad culinary uses and possible health benefits of the aromatic bulb. Garlic-laced delicacies will be available, ranging from chocolate-covered garlic to garlic-flavored ice cream. There will be roasted garlic, pickled garlic, chopped garlic, powdered garlic, garlic salt, garlic mustard, garlic dressing and garlic-stuffed olives. And if that's not enough to satisfy your garlic craving, a massage therapist will be offering foot massages with garlic-based massage oil.
A garlic information booth will be staffed by members of the international Garlic Seed Foundation, and will provide information on growing garlic, garlic's medicinal potential and how to braid "the stinking rose." There will also be garlic-eating and garlic-peeling contests at the festival.
"Garlic is a celebration of nonconformity," Leitch explains. "People either love it or hate it. And if you love it, you really love it."
Festival hours are noon to 9 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $7, $6 with a coupon from Giant food stores. Children under age 12 and adults over age 62 get in for $3. Infants are free. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the American Cancer Society as well as local charitable organizations. Directions: Take Interstate 270 to Exit 11 and follow the signs to the fairgrounds.
Pub Date: 6/26/96