I was mistaken when I said that Oktoberfest centers on the potato salad. It’s actually the bratwursts. Over 700 sausages were sold at Saturday’s event, hosted by St. Bernardine and Harlem German Choir. More than 1,200 people descended on the Ferrara Pan parking lot, despite rain and threatening weather. They were Forest Parkers and former residents, who came to fill an aching void in their hearts. For ten years, they’ve missed this Fall festival, where so many warm memories have been made. The event was so successful; organizers plan to expand it to two days in 2006.
As for the bratwurst, I spent two hours cooking them, along with an equal number of thuringers. I was assisted by the two founders of Oktoberfest, Peter Hertig, who directs the choir and his friend Zeno. In the true spirit of the festival, Zeno wore a keg on his head. Zeno had purchased the enormous hat in Munich and only wished he could fill it with beer.
We were doing a brisk business at our stand, as an early crowd of 200 showed up. We were serving potato salad and sauerkraut with the sandwiches. In fact, the stand ended up serving a hundred pounds of each. It was not only great to be surrounded by German accents again in Forest Park; a trio called Paloma was pumping out the oom-pah music inside the beer tent.
Meanwhile, the brats were actually too popular; as suddenly we were faced with a shortage of cooked ones. I felt like I was in charge of the Federal Bratwurst Emergency Program and was failing miserably. Zeno cranked up the grill, as we tried to keep up with demand. Unfortunately, the high heat caused some of the brats to bypass the brown stage and go directly to the blackened condition.
Hertig had a cure for the overdone ones ” naturally it involved beer. He brought me a pan full of beer to boil away the blackness. This was working well, until Hertig in his impish way suggested an even stronger cure. Why not add sautéed onions to the boiling beer? Now, we were getting someplace.
Unfortunately, an afternoon storm blew in and bratwurst demand dropped to almost nothing. Zeno’s hat started to fill up, but it wasn’t beer. Volunteers scurried like a baseball grounds crew to place tarps over the exposed supplies. Meanwhile, the crowd herded into the tent to listen to a children’s choir. Oktoberfest is just like St. Patrick’s Day ” you expect inclement weather. Which is why the Germans invented the beer tent in the first place.
As it poured for an hour, I felt like I was boiling instead of grilling. The only relief was taking breaks to eat my “mistakes.” Thanks to the rain, I never had to refill my beer cup. But finally it stopped and kids started playing the carnival games again. After Paloma finished, Pauline took the stage for more traditional German music. By this time, I had learned all the lyrics to “Edelweis.”
The crowd swelled into the evening. It brought back memories, to see Forest Parkers walking, pulling wagons and police escorting them across the street. It was like the old days when Oktoberfest was on Roosevelt Road. Except this setting was better: the compact parking lot, with the Ferrara factory and St. Bernardine’s church towering over us. Who needs carnival rides?
The event was well coordinated with Ferrara Pan. The company not only donated the space, they provided a generator and two union electricians to make sure there was power for the stage and carnival lights. The neighbor to the west, U Haul popped for the propane. In fact, Oktoberfest was a community event all the way. Ed’s Way and Ultra Foods donated the soft drinks and water. Roberta Signs ” well you could see what she did. Over forty Forest Park businesses donated services or raffle prizes.
The raffle “tickets” were unique. They were boxes of Lemonheads with peel off stickers. If there was a number under the sticker, you claimed your prize. I don’t know how I got two non-winners but at least I had candy for consolation. There was also a costumed “Lemonhead” greeting youngsters and no, he didn’t have a sour disposition.
In fact, few discouraging words were heard at the event and there were no fights or ugly incidents to mar the proceedings. It was more like a reunion. “You run into people you haven’t seen in 25 years,” marveled committee co-chair Caroline Keeley. One of the old acquaintances she ran into was Ryan VonDeBur, who showed up in lederhosen and a Tyrolean hat.
VonDeBur grew up in Forest Park but now lives in Carol Stream. He lamented that nothing was in walking distance from his house and even if there was a destination, there were no sidewalks in his neighborhood. His wife also grew up in Forest Park, when her maiden name was Cox. VonDeBur had been stationed in Germany as a member of military and was a proud veteran of the Munich beer tents.
Christine Shorner displayed her Oktoberfest button from the 1970s, which commemorated her and her sister’s visit to the Forest Park festival. Her husband, Pete, was one of the key organizers of this year’s events. A former McCormick Place worker, Shorner knew all about raising tents and electrifying the proceedings. Shorner worked almost 36 hours straight between his night job in parking enforcement and volunteering at the Oktoberfest. A total of 60 “faith-filled” volunteers worked at the event.
At 7 p.m., a six-piece cover band, The Pie, took the main stage. Their first song appropriately enough was “Revival.” This band was really cooking and the dance floor was filled with ” you guessed it toddlers. I asked a mother of two young boys if ” as I remembered ” there were precious few times that a couple with preschoolers can have a few beers and listen to live music? She confirmed this and predicted the boys would be tired of playing with the tent ropes by 9 p.m.
Meanwhile, kids were winning so many carnival prizes some had a hard time carrying them. Then, suddenly a power outage brought all the proceedings to a halt. No, wait ” instead of cursing the darkness, The Pie’s drummer kept the song going until light and sound were restored. The band played almost non-stop until 10 p.m. and adults replaced toddlers on the dance floor.
During a brief break, I spoke with Nella Davy, the granddaughter of the founder of Ferrara Pan and sister of the current president, Salvatore. Nella runs the original family bakery at 2210 West Taylor in Chicago. She explained that her grandfather, Salvatore, got his start with the bakery and then expanded into candy. She was not only a fascinating person to talk to, she was pretty quick with the cannoli.
As I walked home with my dessert, I ran into Hertig. “Next year, it will be two days,” he said. Organizers are already planning for 2006 and hope to extend it to a Friday and Saturday. That was the question all day: would the event create enough momentum for next year? The answer was a resounding “yes.” As co-chair Deb Michalak said, “We needed the next generation to continue this wonderful tradition and they’ve stepped up to the plate.”