Friday, October 21, 2011

Celebrating Oktoberfest: Across the Cornfields Edition

by Reneé Gordon Holley

Every September, millions of people flock to Munich, Germany, eager to take part in the annual Oktoberfest celebration. Tourists and locals alike overrun the city, spending hours in festival tents, sipping fine brews specially formulated for the occasion, and consuming innumerable pretzels and pork shanks. Among the smells of people, beer, meat and sweets, listeners are treated to traditional folk bands, which blast Bavarian classics and entice children to dance.

For those unfortunate souls who are unable to make the yearly pilgrimage to Bavaria (myself included), you may be able to catch a local party. Communities scattered throughout the United States put on their own, home-grown versions of the “Fest,” complete with Dirndl, Lederhosen, and traditional Bavarian decor.

In Central Illinois, residents have the option of making a culinary pilgrimage to experience the closest thing to German Gemütlichkeit on this side of the Atlantic. Travelers heading north on Illinois 47 encounter corn, soybeans, and the occasional pumpkin patch. But, when an old drive-in theater peaks over the horizon, you have reached a town that serves the best slice of Germany, complete with Oktoberfests, May poles, and enough apple strudel to satisfy any appetite. In Gibson City, you are transported to a Bavarian hunter’s lodge when you eat at Bayernstube.

This experience of European culture “across the pond” is really just a few miles away, across Illinois’ golden sea of corn, bending in waves with the cool harvest breeze.

On Friday, September 30th, the EUC staff paid a visit to Gibson City, complete with jovial German folk tunes, appropriate for the journey. (Those of you with UI library access, check out item number CDISC M1734 B38 – Bavarian Holiday – for a unique German music listening experience, complete with brass, yodeling, and some culturally puzzling moments that might spark larger musicological debates, if you are interested in that sort of thing.) As we approached Gibson City, we caught a glimpse of Twin Groves Wind Farm, one of the largest wind farms this side of the Mississippi. Wind farms are a staple in many regions of Germany, and since seeing my first windmill in my high school German textbook, I associate one with the other.

The EUC staff regrouped at the restaurant in the Dietrich Hall, named after the original owner’s father. Father Dietrich’s hunting legacy was readily apparent; restaurant guests enter the bar, which features walls of many fine examples of taxidermy. Before entering the beer hall, I was tempted to select one of the hundreds of steins adorning the main dining room to serve as my beverage glass for the evening.

Bayernstube maintains an Oktoberfest menu, including pretzels, traditional Munich “Weisswurst,” Rouladen, and a special Camembert and dark beer cheese spread. The regular menu boasts eight varieties of schnitzel (breaded, pan-fried pork or veal filets); red cabbage and sauerkraut so tasty that the pickiest eater might need convincing that they are indeed consuming cabbage; and potatoes that are served in salad, pancake, mashed, and sautéed forms. Each meal is accompanied by a basket of Bauernbrot, or farmer’s bread, plus Bayernstube’s homemade smoked sausage spread. Be warned; one slice is not enough. After selecting your entrée and drink from the list of German beers on tap, remember to save room for dessert. At the end of the meal, Dirndl-adorning waitresses display dessert trays at each table and feature an assortment of cakes, inviting guests to select a slice.

For as authentically German as we perceived our experience to be, we were glad to have a resident expert with us to provide a running commentary on the finer qualities of the meal. EUC Visiting Scholar Gregor van der Beek, along with his son, gave rave reviews of the food and atmosphere. Dr. van der Beek commented that Bayernstube embodied the style and feel of a restaurant that his grandparents would choose if they were to take the family out for a nice meal. After spending almost three months in Illinois, our German guests enjoyed the Bauernbrot and entrées, which reminded them of home, and Bavaria of course!

Although Oktoberfest has nearly drawn to a close for this year, plan on partaking in next year’s festivities, or perhaps make the pilgrimage to Bayernstube for a family meal or a get-together with friends. Bis dann!

Stay tuned for the next “Across the Cornfields” edition of “Across the Pond” – Chicago’s Christkindlmarket!

Reneé Holley is a PhD Candidate in Musicology and an EU Center Graduate Assistant. She is working on a dissertation that addresses the influence of EU cultural policies on contemporary German musical life.


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