The Garlic Revolution in Berkeley: Reminiscences of L. John Harris

Illustration “Berkeley Cuisine,” by Madeline Rohner (painted for the Berkeley Historical Society, 2020).
Exhibit Intro and Contents

Berkeley as an explosive epicenter for revolutionary gastronomic change in California and beyond had its roots in a passionate embrace of the pleasures of the table in the 1970s. Food epiphanies in Europe reported by a generation of students attending U.C. Berkeley are the main source of this culinary/cultural sea change. I was one of these students.

Garlic—a delicious, medicinal, symbolic and funny bulb from the lily family (cousin to leeks, onions and chives) seduced me and launched my research for The Book of Garlic in 1972. The decision to make garlic the subject of my first book—I was 25, working shifts at the Cheese Board, and had published just two articles in the Los Angeles Free Press—followed a very short stint waiting tables at Chez Panisse during its frenetic first days. While I did not learn to love garlic at Chez Panisse (my mother taught me that) or understand it (that came from my research), I certainly found at Alice’s restaurant an inspiring family of fellow garlic freaks. We knew that garlic was the “base note” in cuisine’s symphony of flavors.
Photo: L. John Harris, Mr. Garlic, at home with his garliciana collection, 1979.

Photo: L. John Harris, Mr. Garlic, at home with his garliciana collection, 1979.

Photo of The Book of Garlic, with foreign editions

The publication of The Book of Garlic in 1974, and its four foreign editions, led to the international fan club, the Lovers of the Stinking Rose (no connection to the SF and LA restaurant The Stinking Rose that “borrowed” the term I coined) and LSR’s club publication, Garlic Times. Throughout the 70s and 80s I kept the club and newsletter going as best I could given my venture into cookbook publishing at Aris Books. There was no social media then, so I did it the hard way, through print media, TV and radio.

The Book of Garlic, with foreign editions

Perhaps the highpoint of the garlic revolution—or, at least, my garlic revolution, came as the wild gourmet 70s morphed into the milder foodie 80s. Ruth Reichl, whom I had worked with in the 70s at the Swallow café in the Berkeley Art Museum, wrote an article featuring LSR and my book titled “Garlic: the clove that conquers all” in the May 1979 issue of New West magazine. This was followed by the release of the late Les Blank’s film, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, inspired, he said, by my book and the garlic antics at Chez Panisse’s Bastille Day Garlic Festival, which I co-created with Alice Waters in 1975.

Inaugural issue of Garlic Times, 1977

Inaugural issue of Garlic Times, 1977

Bumper sticker, Fight Mouthwash Eat Garlic
Lovers of the Stinking Rose Bumper Sticker

This was the garlic revolution in a nutshell—Dionysian feasts and festivals, films and fan clubs. It was, in retrospect, a parodic, “clove in cheek” footnote to a grander narrative, the California cuisine revolution that evolved out of Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto” and its holy trinity of Peet’s Coffee (1965), the Cheese Board (1967) and last but not least, Chez Panisse (1971) and its visionary team, Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower.

By the 1980s, and as revolutions go, there was a counter-revolution. Under the auspices of the town of Gilroy and its “Garlic Capital of the World” festival (1979), fresh garlic was marketed to the masses for the first time, replacing the tamer dehydrated powders and salts America was accustomed to. Although I helped to develop and promote the festival, and attended the first two in 1979 and ‘80 to hawk The Book of Garlic and LSR newsletters, it was clear that Berkeley’s radical garlic geeks did not fit in. In fact, Les Blank’s film was banned in Gilroy because of its endorsement of Cesar Chavez’s Farm Workers in a scene that flashed the union’s logo over an image of garlic harvesters digging garlic out of the ground.

City of Berkeley Garlic Week Proclamation, signed by Mayor Gus Newport, 1985

Berkeley countered this counter-revolution in the early 80s with its own series of “Garlic Week” festivals (in tandem with Chez Panisse’s ongoing Bastille Day garlic celebration) featuring dozens of restaurants presenting garlic menus and dishes bathed in aioli, which was not yet the watered-down cliché it is today. Whole heads of roasted garlic were de rigueur on most of the festival menus. The first festival was in 1983 and Mayor Gus Newport, donning LSR’s ceremonial garlic turban, proclaimed “Berkeley Garlic Week” at a signing ceremony at City Hall.

City of Berkeley Garlic Week Proclamation, signed by Mayor Gus Newport, 1985.

Fast forward forty years. The horrendous gun massacre at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in 2019 tempted me to come out of retirement as Mr. Garlic and discussions began with Chez Panisse to dedicate its 2020 Bastille Day celebration as, in part, an homage to Gilroy. I considered chartering a bus to take a reunited contingent of Lovers of the Stinking Rose members to Gilroy to show garlic solidarity. The massacre had trumped my resentments of the past. Then came Covid-19, ending that fantasy.

Assuming the pandemic of 2020 will pass, Berkeley’s food lovers will eventually return to their beloved restaurants and shops and carry on with a new chapter in the garlic revolution.  There will be plenty to celebrate and much unfinished business to attend to, not the least of which is the horrific proliferation of the odd-tasting pre-peeled garlic one finds in shops and restaurants across America. It’s not surprising that corporate garlic powers have found new ways to market fresh garlic as a convenience food. Yes, the Garlic Revolution will live on, fighting the good fight for gastronomic potency over blandness and for full-flavored fun over fine-dining fussiness. Vive l’Ail!

By L. John Harris

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