Don Christopher, California garlic king who forever changed our palates, dies at 88

Motorists sniffed a whiff of Don Christopher’s success from miles before they reached Gilroy, the unmistakable smell of garlic wafting through the windows and air vents, luring motorists straight down Route 101 and into town.

The undisputed king of garlic, Christopher started out on a modest 10-acre property in the Bay Area city at a time when only a few thousand acres in the entire state were devoted to garlic; Almost all onions eventually become dehydrated. But as the American palate changed, sales at Christopher Ranch soared to over £100m a year, eclipsing the competition.

As a community booster and grower, Christopher helped create the town’s quirky Garlic Festival, a three-day mashup of all things garlic that drew foodies and just the curious to try Gilroy to taste the garlic ice cream, garlic Boiled corn, the garlic oysters or watch the Food Network’s super chefs compete on Gourmet Alley, skillets and garlic cloves in hand.

Locals boasted that Gilroy was the only town where you could marinate a steak simply by hanging it on a clothesline.

“All you have to do is roll down the window in your car and you know you’re in Gilroy,” Christopher once told the Contra Costa Times.

The namesake of the country’s largest garlic producer, Christopher, died peacefully on Monday at the age of 88, his family announced on their Instagram account. No cause of death was given.

“There is no doubt that his legacy will live on for generations to come,” his family said in a statement. “He made the garlic capital of the world very special and changed countless lives.”

Christopher was born in 1934 to a farming family in San Jose. Both his grandfather and father grew plums on 15 acres outside of town and dehydrated them into plums. While the farm was doing well, neither the plum nor the plum particularly impressed Christopher.

With a loan from his father, Christopher and a brother bought land in Gilroy and grew lima beans, sugar beets and later garlic. The garlic won.

By 1993 the farm had grown to around 6,000 acres and the annual yield was around £100 million.

At first, the Garlic Festival struck Christopher and other organizers as a simple, down-to-earth slice of Americana that could attract a few hundred paying guests. As more than 15,000 people rolled into town, organizers were forced to recycle ticket stubs and rush to Monterey or San Jose to buy more calamari or sourdough bread.

“We said ‘holy cow,'” Christopher told the San Jose Mercury News in 2012. “We didn’t have enough to eat.”

Within a few years, the number of visitors had grown to over 100,000. And with success, the garlic pickles and garlic jerky have been complemented by more sophisticated dishes – garlic goat cheese soufflé, roasted garlic grits and smoky garlic shrimp, among others.

But there were hard times too.

Three people, including two children, were killed and 17 others injured when a gunman opened fire at the festival in 2019. The organizers of the event were sued by families of the dead or wounded, who claimed that inadequate and lax safety precautions contributed to the fatal clash.

The pandemic, a sluggish economy and the loss of land once used for parking finally did the festival, which was canceled indefinitely this year.

While sales at Christopher Farms remained robust, the grower came under fire in a segment of the Netflix documentary Rotten that claimed the ranch used prison workers in China to do the tedious job of peeling garlic cloves with it they could be bottled and sold in food stories.

The family was outraged by the report.

“They claim that forced labor was put into that label,” grandson Ken Christopher, vice president of the garlic farm, told the San Jose Mercury News. “It was specially packaged for us and we don’t have private labels in China. So that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

According to Garlic World’s website, half of America’s garlic is grown in or around Gilroy, while 90% of the nation’s garlic crop is processed in Gilroy. Much of this is attributed to Christopher.

Christopher’s children and grandchildren now run the ranch. Don Christopher, California garlic king who forever changed our palates, dies at 88

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