Time for Oktoberfest!
by Lynn Kerrigan
Autumn in America, especially on the East Coast, is a sensual experience. I can feel it, smell it and taste it. Time to pick a pumpkin, savor the flavor and aroma of tart apples, sip homemade cider and support local craftspeople at the numerous fall festivals held 'round the world. But no fall celebration in America comes close to Oktoberfest—the annual Bavarian party of all parties.My Uncle Bill brought a German "war bride" back to the states after World War II so my interest in things German is fairly personal. Aunt Crystal was a tall, handsome, sturdy woman—typical German stock some might say.
Memories of Aunt Crystal center on her proud membership in the German Club. She'd often invite me to join the family there on hot summer days to swim and play tennis. We'd lunch on a covered patio-like structure similar, I imagine, to a German biergarten. Here, the air rocked with the sound of an oom-pah band and from the kitchen one caught nostril-sized whiffs of sauerkraut and wiener schnitzel.
One thing German immigrants missed about their homeland was the hearty cuisine. Aunt Crystal was no exception. I could always count on some new culinary adventure when I stayed for dinner. It was she who introduced me to bratwurst, knackwurst (or knockwurst), sauerbraten, hasenpfeffer, schnitzel, knodel or klosse (dumplings) and Black Forest torte (Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte).
My aunt was a frugal person and no where was her frugality greatest than when wed to food. "Take all you want, but eat all you take," was her motto. Related to this was her insistence on using every scrap of leftover for the following evening's meal. She also taught me that sauerkraut tastes better served the second day and she held me rapt with her stories about Oktoberfest.
History of the Oktoberfest
Munich, October 12, 1810. Today Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Five days later the citizens of Munich gathered to celebrate the event on the fields in front of Sendlinger Tor, one of Munich's city gates. The fields were eventually named Theresienwiese (Theresa's fields) in the princess' honor. Horse races marked the close of the wedding celebration and the decision to hold horse races in subsequent years gave rise to the tradition of Oktoberfest.
In 1811 an agricultural fair was added to the races and by 1818 the first street performers and beer pub owners participated. Horses stopped running in 1938, but many other traditions survived, helping make Oktoberfest not only a popular tourist attraction, but also a way for people to learn about the German region of Bavaria and its people.
Modern Day Oktoberfest
The Munich Oktoberfest or the "Wies'n" is the largest public Volksfest (folk festival) in the world and was held this year from September 19 to October 4, for the 165th time. This huge block party is attended by nearly 6 million hungry, thirsty visitors. They drink 5 million liters of beer and consume over 200,000 pairs of pork sausages—mostly in the beer tents erected by the traditional Munich breweries. Oktoberfest still takes place on the "Theresienwiese," where buxom beer maidens serve the brew and Bavarian bands rock the thick air. A cacophony of "them old time drinking songs" is a constant.
It's celebrated in September, because chilly Bavarian October winds blowing from the Alps may surprise with an early snow. The 16-day festivities always begin with a colorful opening day, 4-mile long parade dotted with festive coaches, horse-drawn brewer's carts decorated with flowers, elaborate floats, beer bands and people wearing traditional costumes (lederhosen and dirndls) that date back to 1887.
Has the Oktoberfest outgrown its quaintness? Most definitely. There's nothing subtle about this massive hurly-burly of carnival rides, food stalls, and 11 huge beer tents, each with its own entertainment. Stereotypical busty waitresses serve the victuals. Beer drinking is an earnest activity. In the evening, traditional Bavarian and international bands perform on Circus Krone, and on Sunday morning the huge Costume and Marksmen's Parade brings out marching bands, folk dancers, festooned oxen, and floats from all over Bavaria.
Oktoberfest in America
Oktoberfest is cause for celebration in America too. Partygoers celebrate coast to coast—from Mount Angel, Oregon to Titusville, Florida. Cincinnati (Ohio) turns into a Bavarian village during Oktoberfest attracting up to half a million visitors. In Milwaukee (Wisconsin) thousands of party lovers have gathered for over 40 years to enjoy brass bands, folk dancers, yodelers and of course hearty Bavarian cuisine. It's the oldest festival in the Midwest.
Though the 1999 Oktoberfest is over, you may want to plan for next year. The following web site links to worldwide Oktoberfest parties and contacts. https://www.mbnet.mb.ca/~kdyck/Oktoberfest/Dyck'sOktoberfest.html.
Or if you plan to visit Germany in 1999, contact the German National Tourist Office at (212) 661-7200.
Recipe links and previous Oktoberfest information is in The FoodWine Archives at /food/egg/egg1097/oktoberfest.html.
Other German Curiosities
The German kitchen
My Aunt Crystal appreciated her spacious American kitchen. The German kitchen or die kuche is usually smaller and more compact than its U.S. counterpart—not only because European homes and apartments themselves tend to be smaller, but also because European kitchen appliances are smaller and more economical. A typical refrigerator (kuhlschrank) is about half the size of an American one. It therefore holds about half as much and uses half the energy. Full size refrigerators are available for those who prefer them and have the money to pay for the extra electricity. The German word kuche also means cooking or cuisine therefore Deutsche kuche equals German cuisine.
The German biergarten
Biergarten are outdoor cafes where people gather to eat and dine. A biergarten may be associated with a nearby brewery or not. The decor isn't posh—often consisting of plain wooden or plastic tables and chairs. Beer is sold in a mass—a 36 ounce (1 liter) glass costing about $6.50. You may bring your own food if you like or dine on a typical Bavarian meal or just nosh on Brezen (pretzels) and radish. Most biergarten are self-serve establishments.
A variety of beer blends are popular in Germany including the refreshing Radler, a 50/50 combination of beer and lemonade. Russen is a 50/50 mixture of Weissbier (yeast beer) and lemonade and some people like the taste of Neger a mixture of Weissbier and cola.
Is your house Gemuetlichke?
The German word Gemuetlichkeit cannot be translated. The closest translation is "relaxed, comfortable, snug and cozy." Gemuetlichkeit is very important to the Bavarian lifestyle. Many things may be gemuetlich: living rooms, beer halls and biergarten—places having a pleasant atmosphere, relaxed company, camaraderie, conversation, card playing, eating and beer drinking. Perhaps the best definition of Gemuetlichkeit would be: "A place so enjoyable one wants to stay there for hours."
Copyright © 1998, Lynn Kerrigan. No portion of this article may be reproduced for publication without express, written permission of the author.
This page created 1998 and modified February 2007