Every year, around this time on the calendar, they hold Wurstfest, a '10 Day Salute To Sausage,' in New Braunfels, the town where I live.
The first time I went, five years ago, I felt a shift within me. Something in the mess of my DNA was reacting to the scene around me, and a puzzle piece seemed to settle into place. It's the way you feel when you fall in love or when you discover something you can do innately well. It's a bit like being a boy in the 1950s and having the circus come to town and blow your mind — or like tasting really good barbecue for the first time.
You think, 'This thing ... whatever it is I'm experiencing here ... this is definitely for me. I get this.'
It turns out I'm well-suited to attending Wurstfest every year.
Every year I try to contain myself, but it's very difficult when you believe you've found heaven on Earth.
Five easy Wurstfest puns that will not be appearing in this story:
1. ‘It's OPA-ning day!'
2. ‘Wurst Fest ever!'
3. ‘Wiener take all.'
4. ‘Rocktoberfest.' In fact, you won't find any ‘X + Oktoberfest' puns, including, ‘Socktoberfest,' ‘Jocktoberfest' or ‘Woktoberfest.' We consider all derivations unworthy of your attention. This is not Mocktoberfest.
5. ‘It's a sausage fest in here!' OK, we use ‘Sausage Fest' one time, but not in the skeevy way.
50 Wurst years
Every few minutes, the cell phone of Herb Skoog rings. It's a standard ringtone, not the blast of oompah music you might hope for; Skoog politely excuses himself to answer the latest in dozens, probably hundreds, of questions he'll answer in the weeks leading up to Friday's start of Wurstfest.
As ‘director of wurst relations,' Skoog is part of four-person staff that organizes Wurstfest year-round. His office, in a Wurstfest building near the grounds where the event is held, is packed with file cabinets, all adorned with bumper stickers that say things like, ‘The older I get the better I was.' His office — home to Wurstfest beer steins that line a high shelf that goes along all four walls — looks as if, over the years, it's developed an additional layer made of paper and work folders.
Skoog has been part of the festival since it began as ‘Sausage Day' in 1961. He helped incorporate the sausage fest and has watched it evolve from a short-run German-style party to a 10-day event that now emphasizes family fun and community involvement.
Wurstfest today features beer but is largely about the large variety of food booths, music that plays continuously for all 10 days on three separate stages, carnival rides and lots of German costumes and silly hats.
Skoog says that in the late '70s, the festival suffered from growing pains and that the decision to begin charging admission to the festival helped get things back under control.
‘We were just overwhelmed because it got to be hard to control, so we started charging at the gates,' Skoog says. ‘We shifted the emphasis from the quantity of people to quality of people and to emphasize family participation.'
Wurstfest is held in Landa Park. When you walk through the entrance gates — which have been remodeled and widened for this year's 50th fest — you're walking alongside the bank of the Comal River. A large tent with German music is one of the first things you see. Inside a giant hall are dozens of booths offering well more than 100 kinds of food, from bierbrats to fried Oreos to goulash, funnel cakes and potato cakes (with a side of applesauce and, hey, why not, a smoked sausage).
Skoog says that as the years pass, both musical styles at the fest and kinds of food change. For a while, corn on the cob was all the rage, and so was big-band polka. These days it's pork-chop-on-a-stick and something called ‘nuclear polka.'
But the fest itself, which comes together with the help of about 300 ‘OPA' volunteers and thousands of organization members who run concessions or sell items at the fest, is largely unchanged despite seeming to grow every year. There were about 125,000 attendees over 10 days at last year's Wurstfest.
‘We don't have any pyrotechnics or lasers or flashing things,' Skoog says. ‘We just have a laid-back and acceptable place to have a beer and listen to music and have a good time.'
His phone rings. More questions about Wurstfest, which is getting closer every minute.
From 1988 to 1991, when I was a teenager, my family lived in Wiesbaden, Germany. That's not far, it turns out, from Braunfels, the place Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels left to lead a group of immigrants to Texas, where he founded New Braunfels.
As an Air Force brat living overseas during the Gulf War, I mostly stayed close to home. We lived in an open military community housing area, but it was in some ways as American as if we'd never left Texas. We ate out in Germany only a few times that I can remember. There was the initial thrill of being served alcohol in a restaurant at the age of 13 (‘Can we eat out every night?') but no real understanding of the cuisine or the culture.
Fifteen years after I left Germany, my wife and I went to Wurstfest.
We ate what had to be about a million sausages on a stick. We drank Spaten draft beer, dark and sweet. We devoured sauerkraut and potato cakes and pigs-in-a-blanket and bread pudding with hot yellow syrup from the New Braunfels Smokehouse.
The music — polkas, the chicken dances, accordion odes to beer and laughter — was suddenly beautiful.
We came back the next year. And the next. We ate and ate and drank and blissed out. We bought little felt hats and purchased pins to put on them. We people-watched ... the clowns, the Lederhosen-wearing children, the elderly beer drinkers wearing giant hot dog or chicken hats.
When we started having kids, we brought our first daughter.
She ate and danced and had the time of her (very young) life. Our neighbors, Wurstfest veterans, told us about polka bands from faraway places like Minnesota that they followed and admired. We were part of some sort of crazy Wurstfest family.
Every year, toward the end of October, we don't get so excited about Halloween. We start planning for Wurstfest.
The biting of the sausages
It seemed that Wurstfest might have peaked in 2006 when ‘Good Morning America' did a live segment from the Wursthalle, where costumed dancers put on a show and giant beer steins from the New Braunfels Art League were unveiled.
But this year's festival will try to top that with building renovations and a visit from Johannes Graf von Oppersdorf-Solms-Braunfels, a direct descendent of Prince Carl, who will be visiting the festival with his family.
Known informally around the Wurstfest offices as ‘The Count,' the dignitary sent an audio message to festgoers from sister city Braunfels that was played during a recent mural unveiling and dedication.
‘I feel as if I know each of you as our history is so entwined,' Oppersdorf-Solms-Braunfels said.
The enormous mural, called ‘Fenster ins Wurstfest' (‘Window into Wurstfest'), features three separate scenes from Wurstfest. Artist Brent McCarthy used 40 gallons of high-pigment acrylic paint for the mural, attempting to ‘feel the beauty of German heritage that Wurstfest carries on.'
In one of the mural scenes, Gator the Clown, who stands tall on stilts and is a fixture of the festival, waves to children. The real Gator, whose name is Kenneth Jones, said he's long known that Wurstfest sets itself apart from other Oktoberfest-style events.
‘It's really the city, just the way they put on the festival,' he said. ‘It's one of the classiest German festivals I do.'
Also attending the mural dedication was Tasha Ray, a speech pathologist who brought her young son Zach. She said she's been going to Wurstfest for about 15 years, since she was a student in San Marcos. She goes straight for the funnel cakes when Wurstfest starts and likes to soak up the culture.
‘German people are very proud of their heritage and they love to share it,' Ray said.
Wurstfest starts with a ‘biting of the sausages,' a tradition where a long set of sausage links are bitten into on stage to kick off the fest. ‘It's eins, zwei, drei, bite,' explained Skoog, ‘That's what officially opens Wurstfest.'
There's a high school event on Wednesday when the fest puts away the alcohol and about 2,000 high school German-language students visit to practice their German. Saturdays bring the biggest crowds, but the second Sunday offers free admission after 3 p.m.
The lengthy and sometimes quirky history of Wurstfest is expected to become a book next year. Alton Rahe and Darvin Dietert are working on a 50-year history of Wurstfest and are waiting for Wurstfest 2010 to conclude to write the last chapter.
Rahe, who likens Wurstfest to Austin's long-running (and dearly departed) Aqua Fest, said Wurstfest came from humble beginnings, when it attracted military members with cash. (Wurstfest always starts the Friday before the first Monday of November, a tradition that started because of the military's monthly payday.)
Rahe believes that the festival's strong ties to the community and self-sufficiency — it's a nonprofit that pays for itself with no drain on local taxes, even for police and cleanup — have kept it going and growing.
The key to its success — apart from the sausage, the beer, the carnival rides, the giant clown — Rahe said, is that, ‘There's not too many places you can go to and enjoy yourself knowing that all this money will go to a charity. It's really a win-win situation.'
When: Friday through Nov. 7 4 p.m. to midnight Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 5 p.m.-midnight Nov 4-5.
Where:Landa Park Entrance, New Braunfels
Cost:$8 admission, kids younger than 12 are free. Free admission for all after 3 p.m., Nov. 7
Information: 800-221-4369, www.wurstfest.com