I arrived at Oktoberfest with only one objective: to participate in my favorite of all party rituals, the chicken dance. I don’t know why imitating barnyard fowl in unison with several hundred strangers is so satisfying; I only know where to find my bliss: the Turn Verein. Sacramento’s headquarters for German-American culture since 1925, the gorgeous brick building on J Street houses a library; a gymnasium; and activity rooms for German-language classes, a folk-singing group and a handball club. And every October for the past 39 years, the Turn Verein has opened its doors to celebrate the anniversary of the 1810 marriage of Bavarian King Ludwig I with beer, sausage, live polka music, homemade desserts and, yes, the chicken dance.
An hour into last Friday’s Oktoberfestivities, the main hall quaked with oompah horns, drinking cheers, polka romping and the chatter of hundreds of old friends and newly beer-bonded allies. A colossal food line stretched the length of the hall, snaking through rows of tables toward the kitchen, where volunteers filled pitchers and plated sausages as quickly as possible. From a raised stage in the back of the room, the flushed and sweaty frontman of the Alpen Band California led the crowd in various polkas by barking unintelligible instructions through a microphone headset and waving his arms. Every few minutes, a different group of people yelled, “Heeeeeeeyyyyy!” and swung its cups skyward for no discernable reason. Lederhosen and dirndls abounded, but so did leopard-print blazers and trucker hats. It was chaos—cheery, bratwurst-fueled chaos.
Overwhelmed, I forgot my mission immediately. At the sight of the giant food queue, survival instinct kicked in, and I became obsessed with finding nourishment, lest it run out. My friends avoided the intolerable line with the outdoor beer garden’s $3 sausage-and-roll special. Being an herbivore, I opted for a beer-and-cake diet.
After two pints of Spaten, I headed upstairs to the Vienna Kaffeehaus, where a table laden with homemade brownies, frosted cakes, strudels and bar cookies beckoned like an elaborate trap set for Hansel and Gretel. I flagged down one of a half-dozen ladies in dirndls bustling about and pointed to a crispy brown ring cake dusted with powdered sugar as fine as the first snowfall in the Black Forest.
“What kind of cake is this?” I asked, practically salivating.
“Kugelhopf,” the bespectacled woman replied. Her hands smoothed the front of her colorfully embroidered dress.
“What flavor is it?” I pressed, hoping for gingerbread—the perfect fairy-tale food.
She fixed me with a stare that could only mean, “Duh. It’s kugelhopf flavor.”
My embarrassment eased by the inebriating effect of the Spaten, I happily traded three $1 food tickets for a slice and a cup of decaf coffee. Fifteen minutes later, I was back. The dirndl ladies shrugged when I asked the name of a second cake, a bundt with icing trails on top.
“Hildegard, what is this?” one asked another, who sniffed the slice suspiciously before handing it to me. “Spice?” she said, noncommittally.
The lesson here? Don’t ask. Just buy. It’s all delicious.
When the risk of starvation yielded to the danger of gluttony, I remembered my original goal and headed downstairs to see if they were playing my song. Not two minutes later, the first notes of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” rang out over the din. I turned toward the stage in time to see the bandleader placing a large stuffed chicken on his head. One by one, in time with the dramatic intro, the other musicians followed suit. When all poultry was in place, the crowd cheered, and the frantic tune began. I bolted to the dance floor with my hands held up like little beaks, and within seconds I was flapping happily with a flock of enthusiastic Oktoberfesters.
There we were—tiny children, elderly couples in German costume, drunken college kids, young marrieds, hyper teenagers and one goofy journalist—wiggling our tail feathers in ridiculous harmony. My faith in humanity’s good-natured kookiness was restored; my Oktoberfest objective, completed.