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Who Gets Gemutlich Like Those Germans?

October 06, 1994|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to the Times Orange County Edition. This column is one in a series of first-person accounts of leisure activities in and around Orange County.

I love weddings. Actually, I love wedding receptions. Big ones. Loud ones. With lots of yelling and silly behavior and dancing and toasting and enough food to collapse the tables.

Italian wedding receptions are usually right near the top on the pure fun list, and Greek ones are great if you love line dancing in its original form, and Jewish wedding receptions will force you onto a diet for at least a month.

But the Germans have perfected the art of the blowout wedding reception. They did it beginning Oct. 12, 1810. The occasion was the wedding of the crown prince of Bavaria, who later became King Louis I, to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen.

The reception, it is said, went on for--depending on whom you believe--one to six weeks. They had so much fun they decided to do it every year after that. Today they call it Oktoberfest.

Naturally, party-intensive folks from all over the world have since appropriated Oktoberfest for themselves, and Orange County has two of the largest ones in Southern California. I decided to go to both in one weekend.

It's not easy. The trick is to arrive ravenously hungry and, to a lesser extent, thirsty. Because, let's remember, Oktoberfest started life as a royal wedding reception and it still carries a lot of that slightly crazed reputation.

Particularly the one at Old World in Huntington Beach. Held in an enclosed area that looks to be part makeshift beer hall, part fake alpine cave, Old World's Oktoberfest (which runs through Nov. 6) began at 6:30 Saturday evening with a few stragglers who quickly ordered trays of standard Oktoberfest food from the kitchen--lots of bratwurst, chicken, sauerkraut, strudel and potato salad--and began sipping the first malty German beers of the evening.

I chose a table near the band, an import quartet from the Old Country called the Nurnberger Express. They were slightly disappointing in that they were mostly in tune, a real sin for any good Oktoberfest band, but before long the dancing started on the nearby raised wooden floor.

I ordered a bratwurst and potato salad and a big Spaten beer and settled in. And for the first hour or so, things were fairly genteel: a few little kids capering around on the dance floor, a fine spray of kraut-and-wurst juice, and not a few good ringing burps (it ain't Tavern on the Green) rising from the crowd.

Around 8:30 or so, however, I noticed that the decibel level had risen dramatically (along with the temperature), and the crowd had almost completely filled the inner beer garden and were spilling out into the adjacent outdoor one. Waitresses in dirndls were circulating through the mob hawking apple schnapps and Jagermeister (a strong herbal drink) in what appeared to be test tubes.

I fled outside for some fresh air, stayed a few minutes, then tried to shoehorn my way back inside. I was met by a blast of warm, beery air and a din that made conversation a test of wills. This is just the sort of atmosphere I treasured in college (and most of the crowd appeared about that age), but now, in full fuddy-duddy array, I reconsidered a second assault into the throng and remembered that I had to do this again the next day at the Phoenix Club in Anaheim.

The Phoenix Club is Orange County's private German-American club that is open to the public (for $5 admission) through Oct. 30. While Old World opens the beer hall on Wednesdays through Sundays (Wednesday and Thursday are free, Friday and Saturday admission is $10 and Sunday--family day--is $3.50) the Phoenix Club takes the celebration outside in the huge beer garden only on Sundays.

There's a comforting feel of authenticity about the Phoenix Club's Oktoberfest. Club members volunteer at the food booths, and many of them wear Bavarian costume. The tables in the covered beer garden seat hundreds, but many are families of several generations. You hear a lot of German spoken, and these people know how to polka.

After taking a few shots at the indoor air-rifle range, a familiar German institution (the sport is highly popular in Germany and the club team is excellent), I rigged myself with a beer and a bowl of one of the planet's best pea soups. It's made in the huge caldron of an outdoor World War II-era German field kitchen and it can be eaten with a fork.

After a waltz or two (the band played in tune again; whatever became of traditional mediocrity?) I ordered up a paper plate of reibekuchen-- potato pancakes--with apple sauce: golden, crunchy, scourge of Richard Simmons.

The entertainment took on a decidedly loopy character. A man wielding a huge blue balloon danced around with it and then actually crawled inside it and became what appeared to be a human billiard ball--a round blue object with only a head protruding, jumping around. The crowd loved it.

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