Wednesday, September 30, 2009

OKTOBERFEST AT THE PENNSYLVANIA RENAISSANCE FAIRE: An Authentic Taste of Germany (with a To-Die-For Recipe for Potato Pancakes!)

Written & Photographed by Ellen McGlynn

Sidetracked only by a few acrobats and one sword swallower at Pennsylvania's annual Renaissance Faire, our mission this past weekend was to find a place to celebrate Oktoberfest, and that’s exactly what we did. Briefly escorted through the crowds by the Faire's resident sword swallower, Damien Blade, we found what we were looking for perched on a hillside under a red and white circus-sized tent on the perimeter of the Faire's weekly attractions. Left off with only the recommendation of trying the potato pancakes, we couldn't help but wonder if this was the recommendation of a guy who, by nature of his profession, might be just a few taste buds short or one whose golden throat made him a connoisseur. Alas, we turned, and he was gone. Gentle fellow that he was, we decided not to waste time judging his food credentials--afterall, sword swallowers are people too--and apparently his throat doesn't lie, for it was under this red and white circus tent we discovered the holy grail of potato pancakes.

As we approached the tent, it was not immediately clear that there were two lines and that we happened to be standing in the longer one. Not coincidentally, it was the line was for the potato pancakes. Eventually greeted by the sizzle of an active griddle, several hard-working cooks manned their stations churning out plate-sized pancakes two by two. The line moved quickly, and we were apparently in the hands of experts who knew how to move things along.

The food tent was indeed hosted by experts. The Lancaster Liederkranz, a local German choral group and cultural society established in 1880, has been hosting banquets and Oktoberfest celebrations for over 30 years at their own club as well as for other local festivals like the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. At one time only open to men of German heritage, the Liederkranz is open to both men and women, and prospective members need not be of German heritage in order to join. Non-members are also welcome to dine at their club located at 722 South Chiques Road, Manheim, PA, though non-members must be accompanied by a club member. Click here for a sample of their weekly menus. You may find yourself wanting to be a member sooner than you think.

I couldn't help but notice that the price for all of the delicious Liederkranz food we ordered, which included a giant bratwurst, weisswurst (veal sausage), sauerkraut, two super-sized potato pancakes, cherry kuchen, and apple strudel (all made from scratch)—came out to be less than $20. $19 to be exact. When I innocently commented on how reasonable the prices were, it was as if I were holding the golden ticket to the secret world of potato pancakes. A few friendly exchanges and one business card later, I was quickly shuttled to the frying area where I was able to meet the head chef responsible for the Lancaster Liederkranz's yearly following at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire's Oktoberfest weekend.

Anneliese Martin (shown far left with Glenn Yanos), a native of Minz, Germany, has been cooking for the Lancaster Liederkranz since they began hosting Oktoberfest celebrations at their club in 1974. Once serving as head chef, she is retired now but still volunteers for events like Oktoberfest at the Renaissance Faire, and clearly still holds a position of power as head of the kitchen. The celebrated potato pancake recipe that draws crowds to their tent year after year was brought to America by Anneliese where it has become a featured item on the Liederkranz menu. She and her fellow co-workers were proud to share with us what makes these potato pancakes so special.

“We make them with coarsely grated potatoes. We also add green onions in addition to regular onions, carrots and plenty of pepper. Just a little bit of flour, not too much, keeps the batter from turning black.”

Glenn Yanos, assisting Anneliese at the griddle, having just returned from Oktoberfest in Germany, was quick to boast the superiority of Anneliese’s recipe over those served at the Munich festival. Cooked to crispy perfection in Wesson vegetable oil, this recipe makes for both a delicately spicy and colorful pancake.

Recipe by Anneliese Martin, Lancaster Liederkranz

3 med raw potatoes, peeled and rough grated
1 med onion, small chop
1 carrot, grated
2 green onions thin-sliced
1 egg
1 T flour
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
Vegetable oil for frying

Mix all ingredients together. Heat oil in large frying pan. Carefully drop large spoonful of potato batter in oil and form pancake. Fry, and turn until golden brown and crisp on each side. Good served with applesauce.

In order to secure large batches of fresh potato pancake mix for high-turnout events, the Liederkranz staff prepares their recipe in multiple 5-gallon buckets. To keep the batter from turning black, each 5-gallon bucket of mix is topped with flour that is then blended into the potato medley only after the bucket is opened for use at the event. According to Anneliese, this year it took 10 people, all over 80 years old, to peel the 750 pounds of potatoes it took to make the 200 pounds of potato salad and 500 pounds of potato pancakes they sell over the course of the Renaissance Faire’s two-day Oktoberfest celebration (roughly 1,000 pancakes per day). By comparison, the Liederkranz also prepares over 500 pounds of bratwurst and 300 pounds of weisswurst for the same event (pictured at grill, Dave Reinfried).

Though a rainy weather forecast may have been a deterrent for this year’s crowd at the Renaissance Faire in general, Liederkranz club president, Paul Stanavage, did not look worried. Poor weather typically sends fairgoers seeking shelter under food tents, which means extra cabbage for vendors. He was also happy to report a stellar crowd at the club’s own Oktoberfest celebration under sunny blue skies just a week before. Not so fortunate this time around were the festival's folk dancers and young Topfschlagen players (a German game where participants are blind-folded, spun around holding a large wooden spoon, and left to locate an overturned pot harboring a secret prize) who were forced to give up some of their activities on the Faire’s large open-air chessboard.

Unfortunately, the PA Renaissance Faire's Oktoberfest festival runs only one weekend per season, so when you miss it, it's gone. Plan to attend next year's event even under the threat of gloomy weather because, rain or shine, no matter how you slice it, Oktoberfest at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire is no small potatoes.

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Oktoberfest 2009 runs from September 19th to October 4th. With still several days left to plan your celebration, be sure to whip up a batch of Anneliese's Kartoffel Pfannkuchen for an authentic German plate your family and friends will never forget! 

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