Ok so it’s not quite Oktoberfest but we’re almost there, and I think we all need a reason to blow off steam right now. We’re planning some Germany themed posts throughout the month, so stay tuned! We’re starting early on this so you can start collecting your supplies.
Like our other Travel From Home series posts, this one is also meant to be silly, over-the-top, and stereotypical in order to completely transport you to the location from the comfort of your home. But we also throw in our insider knowledge from actual trips to help make the experience real for you. Disclaimer that while I have been to Germany, I have not yet been to proper Oktoberfest.
A little history if you desire…The Munich Oktoberfest originally took place during the 16 days leading up to the first Sunday in October. The festival originated in 1810, in celebration of the marriage of the crown prince of Bavaria who later became King Louis I, to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The festival concluded five days later with a horse race held in an open area that came to be called Theresienwiese (Therese’s green). The following year the race included a state agricultural fair and, in 1818, booths serving food and drink were introduced. By the late 20th century the booths had developed into large beer halls made of plywood, with interior balconies and bandstands. Each Munich brewer builds one of the temporary structures, with seating capacities in the thousands (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Germans have a long history of musical excellence. From classical artists Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner to, at times, the largest electronic and independent music scene in the word (e.g., a small selection…Paul van Dyk, Kraftwerk, Enigma, Atari Teenage Riot, The Notwist, etc.)
But for now, we need “oom-pah” music. Just go to Pandora and search “German drinking songs.” I don’t want to limit you to just one of the many playlist choices. To kick things off, one of my shameless favorites is the song “Schnitzelbank” by the Six Fat Dutchmen. Its catchy, repetitive structure and bizarre lyrics are meant to rhyme first and foremost, and some parings are chosen for their humor (e.g., Haufen Mist, Schnickelfritz = pile of dung/naughty boy; and Hochzeitsring, gefährliches Ding = wedding ring/dangerous thing). I originally ran across the song because of the incredible Animaniacs version. Those writers, as always, got to the heart of it…just sing about anything you want–the secret is to have fun.
Easy mode: Classic family-style appetizers, entrees, and snacks:
- Sausage: So many choices: currywurst, bratwurst, weisswurst, knackwurst, frankfurters, and more. Choose whatever your deli has fresh in stock. My favorite is currywurst, which is sometimes a bratwurst with curry ketchup on the side, and extra curry seasoning on top.
- Brötchen: Bread. Germans love bread and they’re good at it. Brötchen basically translates into “cute little bread.” That’s how it was explained to me, at least, and I love this word. You need small rolls for your butter, mustard, sausages, and to soak up your beer. If you can’t find a German bakery or can’t make your own, store bought will certainly do. I frequently see pretzel rolls, dark rye, and other nice crusty rolls at any chain grocery store.
- Pretzels: You may buy any pretzels if you must, but if you have the time, consider making authentic German soft pretzels (Laugenbrezeln), which get their characteristic bitter, dark crust from a dip into lye before they are baked. Laugenbrötchen, or pretzel rolls, are made the same way and they are my very favorite.
- Knödel (potato dumplings): I think these are weird, but some people in my house love them, so I make them occasionally. Nothing fancy, I just buy the boxed mix from the international row in the market–very commonly found–and that seems to do! Note that you’re supposed to put a crouton in the middle of the dumpling before boiling. See? Weird.
- Käsespätzle: Delicious German mac and cheese with homemade egg noodles. Here’s a very solid recipe. And if you don’t want to make the noodles yourself, they also usually make an appearance in the international row as well.
- Sauerkraut: This one is easy. The jarred stuff is fine. But of course homemade is always better. If you think you don’t like sauerkraut, try this version with apples and bacon. And this red sauerkraut with cinnamon and raisins is another common variant.
- Mustard: Only the spiciest will do for me. But pick your own poison. A couple of imports that I can easily find in the international row in my supermarket are the Alstertor Dusseldorf style mustard in the beer mug, and Löwensenf (“extra” of course).
Hard mode: Schweinshaxe and handkäse mit music. Handkäse may or may not grow on you but it’s one of the most unique things you’ll taste. Hard to find, though. You may need a German grocer in order to make both of these dishes, which instantly bring me back to the beer gardens of Frankfurt.
Dessert: Apple and plum cakes and tarts are quite common, but my absolute favorite dessert is this particular recipe for lebkuchen (pronounced “leeb-kook-kun”). I make them at least once a year, and they are maybe my favorite cookie I have ever eaten. They’re common Christmas Market fare, but great for tea cookies whenever autumn even thinks about making an appearance. Everyone has their own idea about what lebkuchen should be, but that recipe above is the best IMO; it’s all about the spice blend. Cutting them into cute shapes has proven harder than it’s worth, so I leave them in bar form. Note: Do not skip the glazing step…this makes the cookie what it is. And you do need the brandy. Using juice does not work.
Beer: German beer, and German-style beers, are very easy to find in the US, especially from August through October. We’ll cover styles instead of breweries so you know what you might be into before you buy them. It’s worth noting that the old German beer purity law “reinheitsgebot”–in effect since the year 1516–still stands to a certain degree. At its core, the law limits brewers to 4 ingredients: barley, hops, yeast, and water. So you won’t find donut or passion fruit flavored German beer, but you will always find incredible German beers that don’t need anything extra:
- Oktoberfest: Malty with a balance of clean, hop bitterness, similar to Vienna lager
- Marzen: Orange-amber color and medium-bodied, with a blend of herbal German hops and fresh bready and spicy malt
- Kolsch: Crisp, sparkling, fruity, and delicate flavor
- Heffeweizen: Straw-colored and brewed with 50% malted wheat. Aroma and flavor comes from the yeast and is usually fruity (banana) and phenolic (clove)
- Dunkel: Dunkel is German for “dark.” They are characterized by their smooth malty flavor
- Schwarzbier: Opaque, black colour with hints of chocolate or coffee flavours; but not very strong (i.e., alcohol content)
- Rauchbier: Distinctive smoke flavour due to malted barley dried over open flame.
Cocktails: If you’re going for “traditional” drinks, cocktails aren’t all that common, but spirits and schnapps are. Often an establishment will even have its own house schnapps (flavored liqueur) distilled with local fruit and spices. This is not the brightly colored stuff you typically see in the US, but your local liquor store likely has more authentic versions, even if they aren’t German. Think clear or very lightly colored liqueurs, with flavors like pear, cherry, plum, and hazelnut.
One of the more interesting liqueurs I’ve ever tried is Underberg, which is an herbal digestive (with 43 herbs!) traditionally brought along on a brisk after-meal walk. It resembles Angostura bitters, if I have to compare, and it gets the job done. I’m currently collecting caps so I can send off for kitschy Underberg-branded trinkets!
And maybe just as important as wine, in some regions, is ebbelwoi, apfelwein….apple wine! You’ve probably seen bembels in your grandma’s house or in antique shops (the blue and white stoneware pitchers)…these are specifically for serving ebbelwoi, which is stronger and less sweet than US hard cider. Ebbelwoi is decidedly hard to find, even in specialty markets. But if you ever do find it, grab it!
Non-alcoholic: Germans have a long history of non-alcoholic beer brewing. They are very serious about ensuring that they don’t drive drunk. You’ll find more than a few non-alcoholic beer selections from major breweries on every menu in Germany. And pretty much any German non-alcoholic beer you’ll find in the states is good…for what it is (Clausthaler is easily found). Germans also love sparkling mineralwasser and drink this more often than tap water most of the time from what I’ve seen. It’s also common to mix fruit juices with sparkling water.
I tried to avoid WWII as much as I could, but it’s hard! I’ve included some classics and highly rated films, as well as a new category, YouTube videos and short documentaries. Before Covid, I was planning a big Germany trip and watching a lot of YouTubes to get inspired and get the feel for places I’d not been. Enjoy!
- For the adults: Hopscotch; Run, Lola, Run; Goodbye Lenin!; The Devil Makes Three; Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbender romance); The Reader; Lore; The Book Thief; The Monuments Men
- Family-friendly ideas: Tangled, Snow White, The Sound of Music (ok, not quite, but close enough!), National Lampoon’s European Vacation (for the German “relative” segment)
- YouTube/short documentaries:
- Rick Steves has 10 Germany episodes from various regions of the country, including a Christmas episode. All are great. Here’s a link to the search.
- MUNCHIES is VICE’s video channel that “chronicles the wide spectrum of the global culinary experience and the diverse voices that are pulling us forward.” MUNCHIES has 12 fabulous episodes about eating (and drinking!) in Germany.
Here are my unapologetic fairy tale selections, three lovely castles and a preserved medieval “ring wall” touristy city:
- Bring the outside in: Decorate your table or make garlands that celebrate the transition from late summer to early fall. Pair greenery (spruce or other conifer boughs) with fall leaves, pinecones, wildflowers, sunflowers, grapevines, wheat stalks, etc.
- Beer “garden:” At Oktoberfest, and at many German beer-drinking establishments in general, you’ll find an outdoors, communal environment with long tables that everyone shares. Even though we can’t really get together right now, take your family or your “pod” outdoors and find a picnic table to gather around.
- Bavarian flag everything: Your local international shop or the internet should be filled with Bavarian flag banners and tablecloths. Making a homemade banner or necklace from pretzels is also fun and suitably over-the-top.
- Garb: Your local ren faire cancelled this year? Now is your chance to celebrate at home. Dust off your flower crowns, bodices, and steins and get to work on your merriment. Anything goes at Oktoberfest
- Lights: Dim the lights, light white candles, and sing along to Sierra Madre to replicate Oktoberfest closing ceremonies
- Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany: Ika Hügel-Marshall’s “experiences growing up as the daughter of a white German woman and an African-American man after World War II. As an occupation baby, born in a small German town in 1947, Ika has a double stigma: Not only has she been born out of wedlock, but she is also Black.” (Amazon)
- Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich: “What were the women of Germany doing during the Third Reich? What were they thinking? And what do they have to say a half century later?…In Frauen we hear their voices––most for the first time. Alison Owings interviewed and here records the words of twenty-nine German women who were there working for the Resistance….” (Amazon)
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