Community project: Do something with Oktoberfest

A brief contribution to Herba’s and Die Poe’s project. I was putting this off because I hoped to get pictures but time is running out. So I stole a few. Also, forgive me for not writing in German.

This prompt was a really good one for me, because it’s an excuse for me to write about The Best Bar on the Planet, which is celebrating Oktoberfest for the entire month of October. Germans will find this kind of odd, and where I grew up, we celebrated the occasion in September, per Bavarian custom. This kind of conflict gets to the heart of my relationship with “German” culture in the U.S. — which is that it’s largely half-authentic or inauthentic.

Oktoberfest is a good example. And I always avoid The Best Bar on the Planet (TBBOTP) — which is a German – American bar — as much as possible during Oktoberfest.

The exterior of TBBOTP. Like many fine establishments in Florida, it's located in a strip mall.

The exterior of TBBOTP. Like many fine establishments in Florida, it’s located in a strip mall. And despite the sign, there is no Biergarten.

First, it’s not really easy to say what “German” culture is, at least not from the German perspective. Many Germans have German as a secondary or tertiary identity, and they identify with their city / village or region, or even their religion, more than they do with the country as whole. (I’ll skip the historical explanation for why this is the case.) When I lived in Germany, I spent my formative period in Göttingen, and my entire circle of friends were northern Germans (and heavily Lutheran or Jewish). So even though I learned standard High German in the U.S., when I speak German, my accent includes American and northern German moments, and I use northern German expressions and slang. Northern Germans tend to cultivate a certain low-level hostility to their southern German neighbors and Germans as a whole nourish strong identifications with their particular regions and customs, so that for my friends, things like Oktoberfest (Bavarian) and Fasching (Catholic) were just “not things that we do.” Capitalism tries to erase this sort of thing, so that one obviously sees things where they don’t “belong.” But, for example, while my northern German friends would occasionally eat an (Alsatian) combination like Federweißer mit Flammkuchen (new wine with tarte flambée) in October, they would also call it French. On top of that, what you call “German” depends on which period you’re thinking of. I’m a seventh-generation German-American, and my family came mostly from two places: the region around a little village east of Stettin (Pomerania, thus Prussia when they left it but now Poland); and the region between Bremen and Hannover, which was at that time part of the Kingdom of Hannover. The story goes that when my paternal grandparents met (they were fourth and third generation Americans respectively), they had to speak English because they didn’t understand each other’s low German dialects. So much for shared “Germanity.”

TBBOTP goes for a modified Bavarian interior look.

TBBOTP goes for a modified Bavarian interior look.

Trying to open a “German” restaurant in the U.S. runs afoul of this problem, because first one has to ask oneself “which Germany?” When Americans think of German food, they might recall some “pan-German” things such as sausage and (white) sauerkraut, but other things that come to mind are German in the sense of what Germans used to call “Großdeutsch,” which means German areas outside of Germany proper — such as Schnitzel, which is Austrian (and the story goes, maybe even Milanese), or beer, which is brewed all over Germany, but of which the dominant styles brewed in Germany today come from Bohemia, which has been an independent kingdom, part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Empire, then the German Empire, then Czechoslovakia, and now the Czech Republic (and I’m probably forgetting something).

In the detail I’ve given above, the point might be lost: “Germans” as intense regionalists tend to like local foods and don’t really have a definition of German food, apart perhaps from bread (another murky question). Most German restaurants in the U.S. hit the kraut and schnitzel and beer really hard and celebrate excesses of meat and alcohol, which isn’t really all that German a pattern. (As a German friend of mine who visited me in Madison in the 90s said — “I love that these people want to celebrate the positive aspects of the German heritage. But where did they get the idea that being German means being loud?”) These restaurants seem to reduce all of Germanity to the slice of it you see in Munich at the end of September on the Wiesn, which is also heavily populated by tourists these days anyway. Because of all of that, I tend to avoid them.

Which begs the question of why The Best Bar on the Planet is a German place, the kind of place I would normally avoid.

The typical

The Oktoberfest platter at TBBOTP. Schnitzel, Leberkäse, red cabbage, grilled chicken, Sauerkraut, cucumber salad, possibly some Kasseler, some rye bread with Obatzda … and maybe part of a sausage? This is intended for two — to be fair.

It’s a good question. TBBOTP doesn’t redeem itself on the menu question. The owner has a German Oma, but his main relationship with Germany is his every-other-yearly trip to the Munich Oktoberfest. The menu is full of linguistic errors. His offerings are things that you might eat under certain circumstances in Germany, all carried into one room. So he has eight different kinds of Schnitzel, for example, but none of them are pounded thin like a real Wiener Schnitzel. He has handmade Spätzle, which are more Swabian than Bavarian, but his Käsespätzle are just toasted with slices of Swiss cheese melted on top. He has a lot of great sausage from a nearby “German” sausage maker, and the different types have German place labels on it, but they don’t really correspond to the labels the same sausage would have in Germany. He’s got a reasonably good copy of Obatzda, but the Bratkartoffeln he makes are deep-fried, and bear no resemblance to anything you’d ever eat in Germany — in particular, there’s no Speck in them! I could go on and on. The soup is always beer / cheese, which is Wisconsin and not Germany, and all the desserts on the menu are things you’d have in the afternoon with coffee, not as the close of a meal.

The menu cover.

The menu cover.

Enough complaining. If you’re in it for authenticity, he has a nice list of American sandwiches that will fill the bill. They’re just not German.

So, I feel like I’m getting off track here.

The owner’s in it for the beer, really. A local brewing club meets here and it’s won several awards; most of the bartenders and waiters are home brewers and several have aspirations to become professional craft brewers. The owner has 55 taps open every night and over 400 different bottles stocked. And here, he begins to pick up the spirit of German regionalism, as he pours a lot of local beers from breweries like St. Somewhere, Cigar City, Rapp, Six Ten, Darwin, Dunedin, Green Bench, Angry Chair, and so on, as well as the best European classics. This was the bar where I first tasted classics like Rodenbach Gran Cru, Cantillon, Ola Dubh, J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, Orkney Skull Splitter, and St. Bernardus Abt 12. And it also picks up beers that are lesser known outside of their home countries but still special: Palme, Dupont,  But the classic German mass market offerings are available on tap there as well — Weihenstephaner, Bitburger, Wahrsteiner, Kulmbacher, Hacker-Pschorr, Veltins, Köstritzer, Hofbräu. Even Jever. Odds are you wouldn’t run into all of those in any single bar in Germany either.

And I’m definitely in it for the beer, too. It’s like a beer library. I’ve learned so much, drinking here.

But yeah, it’s Oktoberfest for all of Oktober at TBBOTP and I avoid the place — of the 55 taps, during Oktober, eight to ten are likely to have Oktoberfest beer. Which isn’t a style I like all that much. Also, the parking is lousy and it’s very crowded because they run specials all the time. Like, you can drink your beer out of a boot. (Something else the average northern German would never do.) The waitresses all dress up in dirndls for that month. It’s a kitschy quasi-Bavarian thing that Americans love and that sort of leaves me cold. Maybe because I spent too much time with northern German friends.

Still, I found myself there last night.

Which gets to why TBBOTP is TBBOTP.

I went there last night an hour before close. I love all the waitstaff, but one of my favorite waiters said, when I asked if I could have mashed potatoes as a side, “I’ll get them to make you some.” I ordered a Baltic Porter for my first beer, and he said, “have you tried this other one we have on top now?” and brought me a generous sample. That happens a lot — there have been nights when I’ve walked in and three different people have walked over to tell me that a particular beer was on top and that I should try it. Last night, I was sitting there, sort of idly watching México defeat the U.S. in soccer, when another waitperson sat down next to me to chat. I spend so many late nights there, like that — I go for a beer and I find not only kind service but also friendly conviviality and great conversation. I ordered a Weihenstefaner Vitus for my second beer. Someone told me about a bottle she’d gotten a taste of from a customer, and how it had changed from when she’d drunk it with me months earlier. A third waiter sat down. México won. We all groaned a little and then remembered that México has a great team.

It’s never really about anything there — as a consequence that it ends up being about everything. That’s why it’s TBBOTP.

Even during Oktoberfest.

~ by Servetus on October 12, 2015.

33 Responses to “Community project: Do something with Oktoberfest”

  1. Wish I liked beer. I’ve got a friend who considers himself an aficionado (considering your posts, not really) and he would weep at the idea of that many beers on tap.

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    • And this place is a 5 minute walk from my apartment.

      re: liking beer — I’m always having this argument with Pesky — he doesn’t think that expanding one’s beer palate is something one should aspire to.

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  2. Re. Menu cover: deutsch ist aber auch tricky. Da hast du mal eben korrekt den Plural gebildet (schließlich serviert TBBOTP mehr als ein Gericht) und brav das zusammengesetzte Hauptwort gezimmert, und dann das! 😀

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    • As an English speaker, one is so used to the explanation “it just is that way, you have to memorize it” that I treated a lot of my German that way, as well. But this is such a strange mistake, I’m not sure where it comes from.

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  3. Thanks for this great post.
    The idea of German culture around the world is often quite funny and I grinned from ear to ear while reading 😀

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  4. There’s a great contribution to Herba and Die Poe’s community project. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the very thorny issue of “what is ‘German'” – and you have hit the nail slap bang on the head: The Germans amongst themselves can’t even agree on what is ‘German’. We are far too regionalized for that (forget 1871), and some of us react very sensitively when a regional speciality or custom is labelled “German”. (I won’t even go into the unspeakable faux pas a certain someone committed a few days ago when he joked about a regional custom on Twitter huffs 😉 )
    I have to say, reading through your description of your Northern German friends’ reaction to certain customs, I thought to myself “true, we are quite a humourless bunch – killing the fun for silly principles rather than just jump in and take Octoberfest as a week-long excuse to get pissed”. The weird thing is, I don’t feel any less regionally identified despite having lived away from Germany for most of my adult life. It still rankles with me when Bavarian customs/culture is used to subsume all Germany. Ack.
    So, yeah, no Octoberfest-submission to Herba from me. Proving once again how humourless we Northern proddies are… I am glad, though, that you have shed a bit of light on the issue of German identity. Should be required reading for anyone who is getting ready to work in Germany 😉

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    • Humourless proddy! Ich lach mich schlapp…. 😀 Aber jetzt wo du es erwähnst!

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    • I thought the implication that that picture had anything to do with Berlin was, well — laugh until you cry worthy.

      Northern Germans have Schützenfest, after all — it just doesn’t last as long. But I find the weird equanimity about Weihnachtsmärkte in northern Germany strange, frankly.

      I think the best rule about German identity for outsiders is: don’t make any assumptions. You can assume your friend from (say) Münster is a sture Westfale and it turns out her family was originally from Silesia …

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      • I didn’t even think that the picture he posted had anything to do with Berlin. (If it had, then I wouldn’t have cared, regionalist that I am ;-)) But I jumped to the conclusion that it referred to Germany – and huffed myself to sleep… (not quite).
        Yes, we have Schützenfest. So even Northern proddies are not averse to communal celebrations. Haha, “equanimity about Christmas markets” – what do you mean? The fact that is a custom which originated in the South but the Northerners have fully embraced those? You could be right.
        Are Americans similarly “regionalist”, btw?

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        • yeah, I think of Weihnachtsmarkt in its modern form as, well, not really northern German. I realize the Dresden one is old, but i don’t think there’s a real tradition in the north, is there?

          re: American regionalism — I think the difference is that if I meet an American while abroad (assuming it’s not an “ugly American” ) I feel some kind of mutuality (most of the time). Whereas a Bavarian meets a Berliner abroad and they don’t really feel much in common — at least in my experience. That freaked me out the first time I observed it. When I’m in the US I think of myself as a Wisconsinite or a Midwesterner (depending on the context) but when I’m not in the US I think of myself as an American. I don’t think Germans do that …

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  5. […] ‘Mach was… mit/auf dem Oktoberfest’. Servetus hat dazu von ihrer Lieblingsbar erzählt (klick), die Poe hat gebacken (klick) und meinen Beitrag findet ihr hier. Und jetzt verkündet die Poe das […]

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  6. Sorry to correct you, but Speisenkarte is also permitted, although the Duden only lists it as second option. My guess is that it is used more frequently in Southern Germany or Austria. Like with other versions of spelling or wording, what sounds familiar there often sounds strange or even wrong in the ears of “Northerners” – and vice versa … 😉

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    • Huh. OK, I’ve never seen that (and I lived a year in Mainz and a year in Erlangen, although never on the Austrian border).

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  7. LOL, i recognise so much of this 🙂 As much of the differences as the similarities, and no way is Schnitzel German :-p (say my Austrian origins :-p).
    Sad thing is these so called ‘German’ places leave out the 2 best munchies around Germany – Spargel und Pfifferlinge 🙂
    But you are so right on the beers! I am not the biggest wine drinker, but having worked for a brewer i learned about palate in beer and it does matter and i have become much more picky. But i never ever miss out on drinking beer when i go to Germany 🙂 or Belgium!

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    • White asparagus is really hard to get in the US — I think it must not be grown here. I only ever see it supermarkets as an import from south America. We eat green asparagus, though. Pfifferlinge you can get here, but they’re not really associated with Germany. JHolland was out collecting them a few weeks ago. In any case, you wouldn’t expect them in a German restaurant in a US. What I really miss in this restaurant, frankly, are the dumplings. They’ve solved the Knödel problem by serving none of them at all! And my favorite thing to eat in Munich is duck with Knödel and gravy …

      Liked by 1 person

      • oh no Knodel????? what a shame! and i like both the Kartoffel and the Semmel ones, i just assumed those would be a given 😦 And it is one of my favourite things to eat when in Germany too, Knodel of one or the other sort and Pfifferlinge 🙂

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  8. Will happily attend to a conversation on Germanic identity based on feudal lines if a certain starch is served.

    Learned first from my childhood friend’s mother, then again on a trip a decade ago: Germans make the best bread, and when able, I trek to Lakewood, Washington’s German bakery/deli to retest the premise…though nothing quite matches the brötchen of memory.

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    • Germans definitely agree that they make the bread, and it’s actually something the ones I know will label as German (as opposed to putting a regional label on it) — but just try to order a roll somewhere, or rather, make sure you have the right vocab at hand. It’s one of the easiest ways to out yourself as “not from here” in Germany.

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  9. […] “Mach was zum Oktoberfest” Aufruf hat weite und interessante Kreise gezogen. Servetus hat über das Oktoberfest in ihrer “The Best Bar on the Planet” berichtet und auch […]

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  10. […] some kind of religious Erntedankfest (thanks for the harvest), but like so many things in Germany, it’s a regional as opposed to a national thing. If I’d’ve lived near a U.S. military base, I’d have had it a lot easier — […]

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  11. […] As I mentioned some time ago, Germany isn’t a nation in the sense we typically think of — it’s a country made up of smaller countries that were finally politically united in 1871, and so many smaller “national” or “regional” identities still persist within it, just as there’s a notion of Germandom that’s greater than Germany (Großdeutschtum), so that there are Austrians, Swiss, Poles, French, Czechs and Italians who are also in some vague sense “German.” […]

    Like

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