Once again, when October rolled around this year, we found ourselves in new surroundings, meaning we’d have to create yet another guest list for our annual Oktoberfest.
I don’t know exactly when we started this tradition, but I remember where. It was when we lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, and had little kids, probably around ten years ago. Noisette had come across a mini keg of his favorite beer, Wahrsteiner, when visiting the grocery store, and accosted me with the idea of hosting an Oktoberfest.
“It can’t be that hard,” he said. “All you have to do is make some Sauerkraut and sausages, and we’ll be in business.”
Never mind that I had never made Sauerkraut in my life. In fact, I had spent the better half of the first part of it hating Sauerkraut with a passion and giving it a wide berth whenever I could. It was the one food my brothers and I were allowed to skip at mealtimes. It wasn’t even the smell of cabbage or the sour taste we objected to so much. It was all the other stuff that was floating around in it, one piece more fatty than the other. It was something my mother, having come of age in the years of deprivation – you might call it starvation – in postwar Germany, indulged in periodically, allowing her to reminiscence about all the foods she so powerfully craved when she couldn’t have them.
That is my only explanation. No other sane person would crave a solid hunk of fat, or a soggy slice of blood sausage.
But, I figured, it didn’t have to be the authentic Sauerkraut of my youth if we were to cook it for the intended audience. In fact, I was probably well advised not to even utter the words blood and sausage anywhere near each other lest I offend the delicate American ears of our friends. Putting the menu together proved easier than I expected. I thought really long and hard if there were any other foods I hated as a kid, and came up with potato salad. Rounded out with a selection of Knockwurst and Bratwurst, or rather whatever passed for them on the shelves at our local Harris Teeter store, and Zwiebelkuchen (onion tart, which I DO like), our dinner spread looked respectable. Finding the right kind of mustard proved a bit of a mission, as well as the right kind of beer. As my Southern German family will tell you, Wahrsteiner, from the North, is completely misplaced at the Oktoberfest, which is entirely a Southern German institution. As are Bretzeln, distant and noble ancestors of the mundane American Pretzel. Paulaner or Weihenstephan (the one that’s brewed by monks), both wheat beers, are acceptable choices for an Oktoberfest, so even though the keg remained, for its pure novelty, we supplemented it with the real Hefeweizen, if only to appease our relatives back home.
Ever since that first one, we’ve tried to host an Oktoberfest each year. We’ve had a total of seven or eight since that fateful kickoff event in 2003 or 2004, which actually happened in November, if I recall correctly.
They’ve taken place in five different cities and on two different continents.
We’ve had guests who drank half a beer each and rushed home to their babysitters at 9:30 pm, and we’ve had ones who raided our entire liquor cabinet and then passed out on our sofa.
We had ones who didn’t eat pork or gluten (don’t move to Germany, guys!), and we had ones who licked the potato salad bowl and then took home some more.
We had people proudly arrive with their own German beer steins, and we had ones arrive in full Lederhosen regalia.
And every single time, we’ve had people at our Fest who we hadn’t even met before, because it seems to be our fate to have to start over in a new place every few years (the good news is, you get to recycle last year’s invitation design). What better way to meet your neighbors than having them over for some Jagermeister.
Especially when you encourage them to wear your country’s garb.
What really warms my heart is how well received each and every one of our Oktoberfests has been. There’s good food, to be sure, as I’ve fine-tuned and improved the recipes over the last decade. Even our kids can’t wait for the annual cooking extravaganza to begin, though I suspect it’s less the sausages and more the assortment of cakes that attracts them like flies. And there’s good beer (for those who, unlike me, actually like beer), brewed according to the ancient German Reinheitsgebot handed down over the centuries. But I think the main attraction is something more. It’s the promise of good companionship bridging all sorts of cultural divides, it’s reaching out to your neighbors who actually might not even have met each other, it’s seeing tradition transported across oceans and generations, though sometimes with an exotic twist.
My favorite exotic Oktoberfest twist is Lederhosen made from zebra skin. I’m not kidding you, they have them in Namibia. Along with the best Schweinebraten outside of Munich, I might add. If you don’t believe me regarding the striped Lederhosen, read this recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
At this year’s Oktoberfest, our next-door neighbors shamed us by arriving in perfectly matched Lederhosen and Dirndl outfits. I think it’s about high time we got ourselves some Lederhosen and a Dirndl of our own. But have you ever seen their prices? They are sinful, and that’s not even counting the boob job I’d have to have before I could proudly show off a Dirndl. Maybe we should just make our own.
Come to think of it, I’ve got just the right material upstairs. I’ll begin sewing right away.