After Hours: Fall Festivals

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX.com Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research, and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

Auf Geht’s!

Oktoberfest is the party that would not go away. It started as the public celebration of the crown prince of Bavaria's wedding in 1810. The festivities proved so popular that they went on for a week and came back the next fall (and the next, and the next….) Ever since, taking a break only for war or epidemic, Oktoberfest has brought an abundance of beer, sturdy eating and good times to the same sprawling meadow in Munich.

Some 100 acres of lush meadowland are home to the Oktoberfest, which draws more than six million visitors during its 16 day run. The heart of the festival is an avenue of 14 food and beverage tents, most of which could accommodate a three-ring circus and then some. (The largest, Hofbräu Festhalle, seats more than 9,900.)

Each tent is associated with one of Munich’s seven breweries and has a distinctive personality. One focuses on sports, another on wine and champagne; one boasts celebrity sightings, another an atmosphere conducive to flirting. The fare is anything from roasted chicken or pig to sausage to oxen to fish on a stick. A few atmospheric elements are common: patrons brushing elbows at massive group tables, scores of fast moving waitresses in native costume and the nonstop sound of music, usually from a brass band.

Beyond the tents lies an amusement park with carousels, thrill rides and souvenir stands. De rigeur: heart-shaped gingerbread decorated with “Greetings from Oktoberfest“ - auf Deutsch, of course.

Oktoberfest always ends on the first Monday in October and starts 16 days before. The lord mayor of Munich taps the first keg of Oktoberfest at noon on September 18 this year, and the fun (and beer) keeps flowing until October 3.

Meanwhile, On This Side of the Atlantic

Come the middle of September, New York City’s Little Italy and environs turn into one sprawling, not to mention mobbed, food court. The onetime Old World stronghold may be giving way to Chinatown and Soho the rest of the year, but during the Feast of San Gennaro, from September 12-23, the fare on the street is still overwhelmingly Italian, from fried, sugary dough balls called zeppole to bracciole (mozzarella rolled in pork or beef) and, of course, sausage. For those who want to give their feet a rest, neighborhood restaurants fill what's left of the sidewalks with cafe seating. The 76-year-old feast, which honors the patron saint of Naples, has no admission charge.

Friday and Saturday nights of Dallas’ 48-year-old Greek Food Festival, September 18-20, feature an array of cooking demonstrations by area chefs, restaurant owners and Father Nick Katinas of the festival's sponsor, Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. Visitors witness the making of stuffed grape leaves, Greek stew (stifada), lamb or baklava, then get to sample the results. For those inspired to try their hand at home, recipes for all the demonstrations appear in the festival program, while Greek olive oil, spices and other uncommon food items are for sale in the festival agora. Readymade foods are also available for enjoying on the grounds, from combination meals to a la carte entrees to a bakery case's worth of homemade pastries. General admission is included in the purchase of a lunch or dinner meal ticket.

Also in Dallas, the State Fair of Texas runs September 24-October 17 at Fair Park. This year, chefs, gardeners, landscaping experts and butter sculpture join such long-standing attractions as the auto show, livestock halls, acrobatic animals, 1930s Art Deco architecture, Big Tex and ... corn dogs. Speaking of which, the fair is hosting the Second Annual World Corny Dog Eating Contest at 2 PM September 25. (Agoraphobes, take note: Texas-OU football weekend is October 9.)

Running September 29 to October 31 in Miami, the Hispanic Heritage Festival kicks off its 32nd year with a black tie, invitation-only evening of tapas from local popular restaurants. Anyone can come to the admission- free Discovery of America Day (October 10, at Bayfront Park), which features Latin music and booths selling foods from all over Latin America.

Now in its 27th year, Høstfest lays claim to being North America's largest Scandinavian festival, drawing upwards of 55,000 visitors from as far away as Norway. In a multi-building complex at the North Dakota State Fairgrounds in Minot, the festival offers a veritable smorgasbord from dawn to dusk and beyond, from October 5-9. For breakfast, visit the Nordic Kitchen. A Swedish bakery serves up pastries, cakes and cookies, while lutefisk (it's a Norwegian fish delicacy, no matter what Garrison Keillor implies) rates its own cafe. Another signature food is lefse, akin to a hand-rolled potato tortilla; generally eaten with butter and sugar, it's also available wrapped around hot dogs at this fest. Basic general admission costs $25 (children under 12 enter free); there is an additional charge for concert seating.

Hawaiian, Japanese and Filipino roots intertwine in the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival (November 5-14 in Kailua Kona, Hawaii), which celebrates the crop that has defined the Big Island since the mid-19th century. Besides a lantern parade and dances in ethnic dress, heritage events include interactive living history tours of a coffee farm, staffed by Japanese workers, that has not changed since the 1920s. If the tour does not drive home the labor intensity behind our morning brew, the coffee picking contest will. (I hear an amateur is doing good to nab three pounds in five minutes, while a pro will harvest 25 pounds or more.) At the cupping competition (the coffee equivalent of a wine tasting), visitors may sample past winners and current finalists, in a casual outdoor setting that makes it possible to talk to the entrants, judges and coffee farmers. An admission button to the 34th annual festival costs $3; the farm tour is an additional $7.50.

ã Kathy Biehl 2004