The Oktoberfest Dilemma – “Oan Maß oder zwoa?”
September 26, 2015
I had no idea how fun it is to wear a dirndl until I spent a sunny day in Munich traipsing around in one. It’s a silly little outfit that makes you feel half like a wench extra from Pirates of the Caribbean and half like Heidi. But it’s all fun, especially when everyone around you is sporting the same silly dress – or even sillier, a pair of leather shorts that inevitably makes their wearers look like they’re waddling around with a diaper full of poo. After the first Maß or two, nobody cares.
This year, Ellen and I decided to go to Oktoberfest on opening day. Our work colleague and his wife live in the city, and we figured it’d be a perfect opportunity to double up on fulfilling our promise to visit and gawking at the yodelers in funny hats. We weren’t expecting much – some drunk and lecherous tourists, some lurchy rides – but being on the Wies’n was great. We left before the leering hour, before the truly tanked had time to get rowdy – so I can’t say our experience was universal, but it certainly left us wanting to wear our dirndls all the time.
We arrived in Munich the day before the Wies’n opened, and the city was surprisingly quiet. Stephan took us on a tour, past the Isar’s white-pebbled banks and up to the top of Alter Peter, where we watched the phlegmatic wooden dancers slowly rotate on the Glockenspiel and looked across the city’s sea of red roofs to the hazy Alps on the horizon. In the old Spanisches Fruchthaus, I bought tiny candied violets – little gnarled, bright-purple pinpricks – and then we were whisked to Dallmayr, which was awhirl with elderly shoppers choosing cold cuts and cuts of meat, slices of cheese from wheels, fresh prepared salads and tiny bites of things glazed in aspic. The average age of the shoppers wasn’t a day under 80, but the store was incredible – packed to the brim with beautiful foods and the toasty smell of roasted coffee beans. We squeezed into one of the corner tables between two ancient couples slurping soup and grimly slicing away at a truncheon of smoked salmon. We ordered a round of champagne to celebrate our youth and our arrival in Munich.
Before we left, Stephan ordered saure Knödel to go. We ate them in the park, on a bench flanked with flowers as a wedding party snapped photos a few steps away. Knödel are boiled dumplings made of old bread or flour. Usually, they’re served warm, but in saure Knödel, the leftover dumplings are sliced into medallions and doused with vinegary dressing and pickled white onions.
We wandered past the Hofbräuhaus and along the quiet, cobbled streets of Munich’s old town. Everywhere, blue and white checkered flags hung from the buildings, and no matter what they sold, the shop windows were all bursting with decorative pretzels. At the Viktualienmarkt, we stopped at Schlemmermeyer for lunch. The no-nonsense ladies behind the counter were having none of our questions, and before we knew what was what, had passed us two rolls packed with tiny sausages and a Krustenbraten in der Semmel – rich, juicy pork and sheets of crackling spilling out of a crisp white roll. We sloshed the lot with hot mustard and ate walking back towards the river and home to rest.
The morning of Oktoberfest was overcast and cool, but warm enough that we could get away with wearing just a sweater over our dresses. Hair braided, aprons pressed, we marched into the city. Stephan and Daniela have friends who live along the parade route, and we headed there for breakfast and an easy view of the breweries and bands as they walked towards the Wies’n for the opening ceremony. To eat, there were baskets full of soft and salty pretzels, warm Weißwurst with sweet mustard, and plenty of coffee and beer. Daniela brought along a bowl of Erdäpfelkas, potatoes mashed with onion, sour cream, and chives until they’re soft and spreadable. Our host, we learned, was famous for his Obatzda, a cheese spread made from Camembert and butter whisked with paprika and a little beer that’s meant to be eaten on pretzels.
We headed to the Wies’n completely stuffed – not a bad strategy for surviving a Maß, a full liter of beer and the only size you can buy. The waiters and waitresses rush through the tents, hands and arms loaded with giant glass mugs, selling them just as soon as they sight a beer-less reveler, while simultaneously taking orders for roasted chickens and more Weißwurst, big, juicy pickles and snacks of shaved radishes speckled with pepper.
With a little luck, we found a seat in the Hacker Pschorr beer garden, wedged between some Lederhosen-sporting Spaniards and two determinedly-drinking locals. The sun came out just as we were toasting with our neighbors, and soon we were all singing along to Helene Fischer’s hit “Atemlos durch die Nacht” and then “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which is apparently an Oktoberfest classic.
On the walk through the fairgrounds, we sampled Splitterbombe – marshmallow and wafer draped with melted milk chocolate – as well as ox burgers advertised by the saddest ox we ever saw between two slices of bread. It was a sensory smash, with brightly-colored dirndls sashaying past stands of gingerbread hearts, feathered hats, garish funhouse rides with three-story facades, blinking bumper cars, a looming Ferris wheel, and everywhere the noise of chatter and laughter and clinking glasses.
That night, we were too tired to do anything but sleep.
We spent a quiet Sunday recovering, watching the Trachten parade on TV and drinking coffee. For lunch, we drove to Daniela’s cousin’s restaurant in the countryside. In the cozy dining room, we ate an expansive, classic lunch. My branzino was swimming in a buttery sauce with capers, big black olives, and ripe tomatoes. For dessert, there was a towering, trembling slice of cheesecake baked with fruit and the softest, densest almond cake along with spiced, stewed plums.
It’s a good thing we didn’t have to wear our dirndls again, because I don’t think we could have laced them up by the time that meal was done. Because in Munich, there’s no such thing as taking a break. There’s just more good food and another Maß.