I happily attended Oktoberfest this weekend.
It’s a vast improvement over last year. Last year, tents were huddled behind orange fencing, penning the whole event into a tiny space as if to say: it’s too cold to enjoy the outdoors. This year, the whole event is more spacious, with a central walkway between a food tent, a beer tent, a kettle corn tent, a tent for the MPR Current (can we get that up here yet?), an area for bean bag games and feats of strength and, of course, the dance tent.
Last year, the aesthetic was one not unlike the Brewhouse that sponsors this Oktoberfest:
an efficiency of space;
a kitsch bordering on, but just barely stopping short of, silly (although last year, the young ladies in their faux barmaid uniforms were a sexist disappointment — less of that this year);
a belief that quality food and drink will define the experience.
[This is the same aesthetic defines the success of the Red Star and may explain some of the relative struggles of the Burrito Union, in a certain way. They had too much space to start!]
This year, it’s as if the folks at the Brewhouse recognized — hey, this is a festival at the most gorgeous outdoor space in Duluth. It can be more than it was. And they made it into that.
And nowhere would that clear than in the quality of the food. I spent some time talking to Jeff, the “food dude” in Brewhouse newsletters and pr materials. From 250 feet away, one foot for every pound, anyone can tell that I love food. But this was no mere festival fare. (I was at Pride and at Harvest fests, and so I can tell mere festival fare at 100 paces.) I had a brat with kraut, German potato salad, and Ginger cookie, while my wife had the rosemary chcken, potato salad and cookie. We shared a pretzel. The entire mountain of food cost us $20 — and it was a mountain of food. I was literally concerned for the structural integrity of the plate.
Kate loved the rosemary chicken, and I think the secret was in the name — how much more awesome to eat a festival chicken not defined by its method of cooking (“broasted” or “fried”), but by its taste. It tasted awesome. The German potato salad was warm — I hate it when people bring a container of potato salad from SuperOne to a picnic and miss out on the detail that German potato salad is warm. As a result, you get the tang of the salad but a kind of warm, comfort-food feeling — just right when you are eating in a tent on a chill September night.
The cookie was a special treat. Ginger cookie — not ginger snap, but a cookie with just enough crisp, just enough chew, to bring out the flavor. Jeff told me that the recipe is one he won’t even write down, much less share.
The Pretzels. At a festival, I normally douse my pretzel in nacho cheesiness or mustardiness. You need something to hide the feeling that your pretzel was squirted through a jet and tangled by machines — the flavorlessness that is embodied by Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse…
These pretzels, warm as we received them, were amazing. My wife and I “shared” one — I put share in quotation marks because it wasn’t really sharing, it was grudgingly giving your life partner half. Jeff is the kitchen manager at the Brewhouse, but he also rolled more than a thousand of these pretzels himself. That is one of the reasons that the food offerings at Oktoberfest are really one of the best reasons to attend — unlike a lot of other fests in town, this menu is concocted locally by one of our more gifted kitchen craftsmen. (Yes, you can get “better” food at 301, but here’s the point: I handed over a $20 bill and had leftovers to take home from Oktoberfest. Jeff is taking festival fare at Oktoberfest [and pub food at the Brewhouse], and within the price point limitations of festival food and burger joints, he’s giving us something awesome.)
Other reasons are the music, of course. The band last night did the most important thing I think you can do: make the audience think that, though you have no doubt played that last polka 2000 times since January, every time, it’s just as much fun for the band as the dancers.
One more reason: one of the folks at the food tent recognized my wife and I as the “pelican guy” — on Facebook, my wife and I noted that we drove a pelican to the WRC in St Paul for medical care. (It didn’t make it — it died in care.) It turned out that we were buying our dinner from folks who were former volunteers with Wildwoods (and a lot of ex-volunteers are still supporters, doing indirect work like helping Wildwoods connect to vendors who offer a discount on needed goods, or securing materials for release cages — all help matters in the nonprofit world).
In short, I think that the Brewhouse is lucky that the best and brightest in our community work for them. They attract waitstaff and festival help from among the brightest and energetic and most committed to making Duluth a great place to live, and they bring that joy to a cold, drafty food tent on a Friday night. And they attract a “food dude” who does something rare in any city: he gives us an immensely satisfying and filling dining experience at a price point that still gives us change in our pocket. The Brewhouse is lucky to have them.
And we are lucky that they share them with us at what is growing into a highlight of my Fall. Swing by Oktoberfest if you can this weekend.