Last Dance at Deutsches Haus

New Orleans, La. – There are plenty of Oktoberfest events at this time of year when people celebrate German culture. But for thousands of New Orleanians, the biggest of all of these local celebrations has become something more. I'm talking about the month-long Oktoberfest at Deutsches Haus in Mid-City. For many, the tastes, the sounds, even the goofy ritual of the chicken dance that accompany this Oktoberfest on Galvez Street have become rites of autumn. But change is afoot.

Deutsches Haus is a nonprofit German heritage club, and it's been part of the city's cultural fabric since forming in 1928. But its clubhouse sits squarely within the footprint planned for the state's new hospital, and that means it's slated for demolition. Deutsches Haus officials now have a firm move-out date for the first week of November, and they say this year will be the last Oktoberfest at the club's historic site.

That celebration is already underway, continuing each Friday and Saturday through Oct. 23, and this year the party really is on Galvez Street itself. The club expects record crowds for this milestone event, and it's taken steps to welcome them all. Club leaders demolished one wall of their beer garden already so that the party can spill out to the lanes of Galvez Street and its neutral ground, essentially making the blocked-off street part of the festival grounds.

As always, food is front and center at this family-oriented festival, starting with irresistible Bavarian-style sausages, the brats and bockwurst and the white, veal-based weisswurst. This year, the organization has about two tons of sausage on hand, some 4,000 pounds of links.

Some people arrive craving wienerschnitzel - the Bavarian cousin to the common New Orleans staple of paneed meat. Others come for sauerbraten, a seasonal delicacy of slow-cooked beef in a sour, tangy marinade. And for some, no Oktoberfest is complete without a serving of rouladen, the thin-pounded beef rolled around pickles and onions.

Much of the Oktoberfest food for this grand autumn feast is prepared in house by Deutsches Haus members, some of who describe the tall order more as a family tradition than a club obligation. Everything they prepare is done on a massive scale. 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 five-gallon buckets by the hundreds. There are baking committees for the countless cakes sold for dessert, while others are in charge of turning out at least 5,000 cabbage rolls stuffed with seasoned beef. Keeping all the makeshift bars around the grounds supplied with various German beer kegs is a serious logistical feat all on its own as the crowds drain their steins.

This year, Deutsches Haus will hold one keg in special reserve, however. This is the one they plan to tap just before midnight on Oct. 23, the last day of the very last Oktoberfest on Galvez Street. The club has leased an American Legion hall in Metairie to use for meetings and events through the coming year and keep its members together. Meanwhile, officials plan to hold Oktoberfest 2011 at a different off-site venue while they try to build a new, permanent Deutsches Haus again in the city itself. But, for the next few weeks at least, the focus on Galvez Street will be on food, drink, music and, of course, that happy spectacle of people of all ages dancing like chickens.

Oktoberfest 2010 at Deutsches Haus continues each Friday and Saturday through Oct. 23. Club officials say the house will be permanently closed at midnight on Oct. 23. Gates open at 4 p.m. on Fridays and at 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Deutsches Haus 200 S. Galvez St., New Orleans, 504-522-8014