Feeding the Oktoberfest Masses

New Orleans, LA –

Everyone wants to be Irish on March 17, St. Patrick's Day. For German Americans, however, the ethnic adulation is less intense but lasts a whole lot longer.

In fact, the celebration of German pride in general -- and Bavarian culture in particular -- begins in New Orleans this weekend, Sept. 25 and 26, and continues each Friday and Saturday through the end of October. It's the area's largest Oktoberfest, hosted by Deutsches Haus, the Mid-City cultural organization that has been the hub of all things German in the Crescent City for more than eight decades.

This Oktoberfest has grown immensely popular. Last year, some 19,000 people attended over the span of five weekends, draw by the promise of a family-oriented festival fueled by imported German beer, Bavarian ompah bands, the crowd-pleasing chicken dance and, of course, the traditional German food.

They come for the various, irresistible sausages, the brats and bockwurst and the white, veal-based weisswurst. Some line up specifically for the wienerschnitzel - the Bavarian cousin to the common New Orleans staple of paneed meat - or the sauerbraten, a seasonal delicacy of beef slow-cooked in a sour, tangy marinade. For others, no Oktoberfest is complete without a serving of rouladen, the thin-pounded beef rolled around pickles and onions.

Each year, Deutsches Haus places a huge order for sausage with its long-time supplier, Usinger's, a business in Milwaukee that produces traditional Bavarian sausages. Pretzels are shipped in too. But otherwise, the food that is so much a part of Oktoberfest is prepared in-house. It's a monumental task that falls to volunteers from the Deutsches Haus membership, some of who describe the tall order more as a family tradition than a club obligation.

These volunteers start meeting as early as June to prepare batches of food for the vast autumn feast. Each Wednesday, for instance, a small group of ladies meets to prepare another lot of stuffed cabbage. They chat and catch up, but for hours on end they sit in aprons inside the Deutsches Haus beer hall rolling moist cabbage leaves around thick wads of seasoned beef, and doing it with all the speed and constancy of champion cigar makers. On one recent Wednesday, a four-person team together assembled 653 of these rolls - impressive but only a fraction of the 5,000 or so they estimate they'll need for the five upcoming weekends.

Everything the members prepare for Oktoberfest is done on a massive scale now. The cooks know they'll need about 500 pounds of potato salad each weekend, and the quantities of sauerkraut and red cabbage are measured in hundreds of five-gallon buckets. There are separate committees baking the countless cakes sold for dessert. And supplying the 40 beer taps for various imported German kegs at four different beer bars is a serious logistical feat.

Amid the excitement of festival preparation, there is an undercurrent of foreboding around Deutsches Haus this year. The club faces the prospect of being uprooted from its historic Galvez Street home to make way for the government's planned new hospital on the site. But, for the next few weeks at least, the focus will be on food, drink, music and, of course, happy people of all ages dancing like chickens.

Oktoberfest 2009 at Deutsches Haus begins Friday, Sept. 25 and continues each Friday and Saturday through Oct. 24. Gates open at 5 p.m. on Fridays and at 1:30 p.m. on Saturdays. 200 S. Galvez St., New Orleans 504-522-8014.