When my dog’s stomach starts to growl, his little internal clock flashes: “Feed me now!” “Feed me now!” “Feed me now!” He jumps on me, slobbers kisses, shakes, “paws” me and then circles around. I’m the treadmill. It’s time to get up. I arouse rather quickly because unlike most alarm clocks, I cannot press the “snooze” button for another few minutes slumber. This dog does not know snooze. He only knows eat. I’m awake.
“No breakfast before going outside,” I tell him. After opening the back door, some days I just let the dog explore the yard and I don’t venture too far down the back steps. But I always check the weather. What’s the temperature and are there any clouds, I wonder? In the winter, the cold blast hits me quickly and I shut the door, watching for the dog to come up the steps. A warm insulating blanket of clouds keeps temperatures more mild. On those early January mornings when I open the back door and stroll outside, I have to be careful not to slip on the dew-turned-ice deck, and the dog steps gingerly because he doesn’t like speed-skating either. He has done it. It really is cold. Usually there is ice in the bird bath and I secretly wish that a birdie hockey game would erupt. I check the oranges on the tree and really hope the frost didn’t damage the fruit, as they are a winter crop. I enjoy checking the dark sky for stars and planets, or the moon. Living in the city, I rarely see more than a dozen stars at that pre-dawn hour, but I always enjoy the search, especially if I remembered to grab a toasty sweatshirt.
During the non-rainy and warm months of spring and summer, the early morning hour is a great time to begin watering the garden, so sometimes I’ll turn on a hose or a sprinkler before getting the dog his breakfast. If I wait too long and the sun gets higher, the temperature warmer, the water evaporates before it can percolate down to the roots. If I’ve elected to walk outside in the early morning, I explore my garden patches, looking for a new rose bud or a dahlia blossom, or check to make sure the kiwi vine hasn’t entangled my patch of daisies. Kiwi vines are a lot like pumpkin vines; they really take over.
Once I’m inside, I can check out the wildlife. Stretching across our backyard and all our neighbors’ yards is a power line. The eight thousand squirrels that live near us love this little cat-free way, especially as the neighborhood offers a rich supply of tasty, sweet fruit throughout the growing season. After exiting the cat-free way high up in the air, the squirrels make their way down a pole, and head to the fence between our house and our neighbors’ house. Not only do the grazing squirrels love this fence, cats love it too. It is the perfect height and offers a just wide-enough perch for feral cats to nap, hide, search for birds, or stare at me through my kitchen window. And when it’s warm out, squirrels stand or sit atop the fence, extend their little paws and tug a sweet and perfect plum, apricot, or peach off one of the trees my neighbors planted along the property line years ago. The squirrels hold the fruit with both their little paws and take a few bites. It’s cute. What happens next, though, infuriates me. This is when I start knocking on the window and yelling, or pick up my little “Cujo,” an eighteen pound white curly cuddly fluff attack dog who falls asleep in my arms. I try to get him to press his little nose to the glass and look menacingly at these squirrels. They just look at my pooch for a moment, maybe two, and then go on with their grazing. It would really help if I could teach the dog to keep his eyes open. These well-fed critters have a routine; they reach up and pull a piece of fruit off the tree and nibble on that. After a few bites, they drop that piece and grab another fresh piece of fruit. Squirrels are very delicate nibblers. They just keep picking, maintaining their balance on the fence, and graze, then drop. I dutifully scoop up all the partially eaten fruit every day. This starts early in the morning and continues on throughout the day, with so many of the eight thousand squirrels visiting the fence throughout the summer. Sometimes, a squirrel will actually take a siesta on the fence, just the way the feral cats do. If it’s light outside, it’s squirrel-time!
If that’s not enough to distract me, the growing population of fat squirrels is visiting my garden and raised beds after their successful raiding sessions in my neighbors’ yard. How do I know this? The critters pick the walnuts off the same next-door neighbors’ prolific trees and scurry up and over the fence, and then bury them in my garden. They are digging up shallow bulbs I’ve planted. I find so many walnuts throughout the season that I wonder if my neighbors ever see a single one. But I digress.
Here’s my point. Early every morning, I let my breakfast-motivated pup outside. If it’s really freezing and I don’t feel like checking for birdie hockey games, I quickly close the door and watch through the window to make sure he doesn’t slide completely off the icy deck into the rose bushes. On other days, I keep the door open longer, and I can hear the planes taking off from the airport, or a train whistle, or trucks going by on the major cross street. And for a couple of special weeks in late July and early August, it matters not that I may open the back door for just a single moment, or longer, because it hits me instantly. This aroma, this heavenly scent, is wafting in my direction. I only need to breathe in the outside air for one second and I’m hooked. I’m always surprised when it happens; this magic essence is so prevalent. Instantly, the cravings start. Forget the coffee. I want pasta and meatballs and garlic bread. Now! I envision a plate of spaghetti with a wonderful flavorful garlic red sauce. Fusili would be nice, or lasagna. Mmmm. I had planned on a croissant and some yogurt, but now I want pizza. It’s 6-ish in the morning. What’s going on?!
Let me offer a little geography here. The city of San Jose, California is a 33 mile jaunt to the city of Gilroy. By car, it’s either a short hop of 35 or 40 minutes, or a long hour or hour-plus commute if the traffic on US Route 101 is bumper to bumper. This happens during drive-time hours, as many people who work in Silicon Valley live on the southern side of San Jose or in the outlying communities of San Martin (San Mar-‘teen), Morgan Hill, and Gilroy. Also, traffic snarls on late afternoons on Fridays when everybody is going somewhere for the weekend. It’s roughest on the eve of holidays, like Thanksgiving, when the one-hour plus drive will turn into a miserable two or three-hour trip. But commute time aside, San Jose to Gilroy is roughly the same distance as my hometown in Connecticut is to Hartford. It’s close, but it’s not next door.
So when I wake up and open the door and immediately crave pasta and red sauce, and don’t even want to think about smelling the roses or lavender in my garden, or even enjoy my fabulous coffee brew I love so much, I know it’s because of Gilroy. Gilroy is known as “The Garlic Capital of the World.” Besides the farms, you’ll find the processing plants there, staffed for three full shifts. Huge hoppers of garlic grown in Gilroy, surrounding communities and from the Great Central Valley are driven to the processing plants. There the garlic is being diced and crushed. During the winter, while driving through Gilroy, I have noticed the aroma and found myself craving meatballs. But now it’s happening at home, at 30-plus miles away.
Gilroy is amazing. Shops and wineries (these are really good wineries) and vegetable stands along the roadside all sell garlic products. You can find freshly-peeled, freshly-roasted and organic garlic, garlic braids, garlic ice cream (Yes, you read that right), garlic wine (Again, you read that right), the diced- or crushed-in-oils garlic, spicy marinated garlic, jars of basil-garlic pesto, garlic croutons, whole garlic sold in bulk, and elephant garlic, these giant cloves that are remarkably mild in flavor. There’s the yearly famous Gilroy Garlic Festival with the annual garlic cook-off. There are garlic recipe books and garlic-only stores that sell garlic snacks and garlic-infused oils, and aprons, key rings, postcards, and calendars, all with pictures of garlic or recipes or both. The Garlic Festival was just last week. My early-morning aromatic experience usually coincides with the festival, but I think that’s purely coincidental. I consider myself one of the lucky people in life who can actually wake up and smell the garlic. For two weeks every year, I don’t know why the winds carry the scent to San Jose, but I love it. My neighbors remark about it, too. These early risers are also mesmerized, and so I’m not the only person in San Jose craving scampi for breakfast. I realize that there are many other cuisines that showcase the bulbous plant, but it’s the cuisine I know best and so my cravings take me there.
After the dog comes back into the kitchen and starts jumping and howling for breakfast, and I’ve closed the back door, and fed him and tidied-up and pet him a little before he runs to another room to return to sleep, I tell myself to make a little coffee before cooking anything. My mind starts to think about other things. The scent is fading. I soon forget about pasta, and open the fridge for my yogurt. I get on with my day, and if the dog returns in a short while and wants to explore the yard again, I open the back door and don’t even think about Italian food. The goodness is gone.
I do smell garlic cooking at 10:30 or 11:00 most mornings, when the local Italian and Chinese restaurants start prepping for lunch, and that’s enjoyable. I think of the people who work at these restaurants and smile, knowing how tasty their food is. This is part of the joy of living in an urban area. When I take the dog for walks past the restaurants, the cooks and staff sometimes wave through the window. On occasion, I order takeout, or we dine there, and if we sit outside we can bring the dog. But the garlic wafting up from Gilroy is a summer’s gift that reminds me how close we are to the wonderful and bountiful growing centers of California, and to the farmers and makers of products that offer such profound connections with a cultural past, with family, with a love of the food and memories. It’s a treat. Even if I don’t make spaghetti for breakfast.