The first of this year's garlic crop was the center of attention this past weekend in Hutchinson. More than 2,000 people crowded the McLeod County Fairgrounds for the Minnesota Garlic Festival.
It's the fourth year the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota has put together this festival.
The festival is one of about two dozen events a year aimed to teach people about sustainable farming, and help support small organic farmers across the state, such as Dave Minar.
Minar owns Cedar Summit Farm in New Prague. He and his family have a milk plant and creamery where they make organic milk products from their grass-fed cows. They also grow garlic plants.
"We make garlic ice cream only once a year, just a special treat for the garlic festival," Minar said.
Garlic ice cream eaters describe it as "fantastic," "light," and "not too heavy on the garlic." This appreciation for the plant is one of the reasons the Sustainable Farming Association picked garlic, said Jerry Ford, the festival's director.
"It's kind of funky, it's kind of spicy, it's got a little bit of a reputation -- undeserved -- for being stinky," Ford said. "What better catch? And we looked at models of garlic festivals around the country and we couldn't find one that had failed."
Similar festivals take place each year in California, New York, Washington state and even Finland. Festival goers at this garlic party echo why they love this member of the lily family.
"I like it raw because it's really spicy," said one festival visitor.
"I really like the smell of it," said another.
Not every one is a fan, though.
"Well it tastes a little too spicy for me, I don't like it," said 6-year-old Nathan Hill.
Now, you may be wondering when Minnesota - a state once dominated by Scandinavians and Germans - began growing garlic and when residents began to cook with it. Foodies say it's true, garlic hasn't been prominent in Scandinavian cooking, but it has in German cooking.
It turns out that the plant grows well here because it's acclimated to cold weather. Soil scientist Carl Rosen said garlic originated in Central Asia, in places such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
"From there it was brought out to other areas," Rosen said. "At the time, many thousands of years ago, it was still producing true seeds and so from that time, those varieties that did well were selected and humans just got that garlic to other areas through their travels."
Rosen, who works at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, said farmers approached him about 15 years ago eager to find out which varieties of garlic do well in Minnesota. One of those farmers is Joel Girardin of Randolph, about 30 miles south of the Twin Cities.
At one point, Girardin grew about 160 varieties of garlic. Most of what he grows now is Russian and German garlic plants. He said many people ask him how different the varieties really taste.
"It's a bell curve of taste," Girardin said. "There's a lot right in the middle and then there are some extremes. There's a variety called Georgian Fire that is the hottest raw garlic I've ever tasted. Some of the garlic, you bite it raw, and the flavor builds and recedes. That one goes boom; hot immediately, and then it tapers off."
But Girardin said some of his favorite varieties, such as one called Creole with a mild bite, don't like Minnesota winters.
In addition to the taste and aroma, growers attribute garlic's staying power to its strong medicinal properties. It's heart-friendly, it has antibacterial and antiseptic properties and it's a prominent vegetable and healer in cultures across the globe.
Garlic experts say the number of varieties that successfully thrives in Minnesota, and the increasing ethnic diversity of the state, have driven garlic's growing popularity over the past two decades.