It’s that time of year again.
But Oktoberfest in Torrance, California?
Sure, why not?
After all, it does take place in a recreated alpine village called, well – Alpine Village.
It may take more than ignoring the fact that the 110 Freeway shadows Alpine Village to convince yourself you are in the Bavaria region of Germany but come late September and early October, there are times when you can practically taste Munich.
Certainly there is no mistaking Alpine Village in Torrance for Munich in Germany.
The complex does, however, offer a German deli and food store with imported specialties, a boisterous and exuberant dance hall, gift shops with rather possessed-looking dolls for sale, a wedding chapel.
There is even a dentist’s office, perhaps in case one takes a few too many hard bites on old pretzels.
Yet among the various southern California versions of Oktoberfest there is something startlingly unique about the one held at Alpine Village.
Yes, each year an oompah band from Munich comes to play for the crowds every day of the festival (against a wall-hanging backdrop of the Bavaria mountains and a castle).
Yes, there’s roast chicken, a multitude of German sausages.
(Bigtime alas, there is no offering of spaetzel noodles.)
An yes, of course, a variety of beers to be held and quaffed from a variety of massive steins or styrofoam cups.
Yes, many guys wear lederhosen (albeit with Seventies tube socks instead of the traditional type worn – it looks close enough).
Yes, many girls can’t resist getting into a dirndl dress, with as high a hem as possible to resemble the real deal.
Yet even were all the details of this Oktoberfest scrupulously authentic down to the last green feathered felt hunter’s hat (don’t worry, there’s knockoff versions in all colors available for sale), there’s still something so different about the Torrance version that one leaves feeling inexplicably uplifted.
About other people.
Oktoberfest has become an important part of that southern region of Germany, known for its own distinct culture which developed when it was the independent principality of Bavaria.
It became something of a foreigner’s conceptual stereotype of “German,” with oompha band music, big preztels and cutely-inscribed iced gingerbread, lederhosen pants for men and drindl dresses for women.
In reality, its a culture without boundaries found in neighboring Austria, Italy and Switzerland, each with slight national variations. Some like the Tyrolean culture in Italian Germany (or German Italy) are distinct to those familiar with the region.
Begun in 1810 when future King of Bavaria Ludwig I decided to host a massive public celebration in honor of his wedding to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in Munich, the event was marked by fire-roasted chicken, horse races and lots and lots of beer.
Oktoberfest soon became an annual feast in the region, the first to kick off the numerous ones during the harvest season, culminating in Christmas and other festivals of light at the darkest points in the calendar.
Naturally enough, when Bavarian immigrants came to the U.S. they brought the tradition with them and it was soon embraced by immigrants from other part of Germany as reminders of the “old country.”
Finding annual Oktoberfest celebrations in regions of the U.S. where there have been high numbers and multiple waves of German immigration like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, Wisconsin and Illinois makes perfect sense.
Cincinnati’s, the largest in the U.S., can boast having had Weird Al Yankovic, Davy Jones of the Monkees, actor Verne “Mini Me” Troyer and Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe lead the half-million or so annual participants in the “Chicken Dance.”
First established in 1912 with a central community design by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the son and namesake of the famous landscape architect of Central Park, Torrance began with a white population majority of first- and second-generation Americans of Dutch, Italian, German and Greek ancestry. Today, Torrance’s 140,625 residents represent a white population of 51.3 percent, and nine percent of them self-identify as German.
When you wind your way along the entrance line and into the tent, the oompah music blaring, the Bavarian costumes from the authentic to the outlandish, and the comforting scent of roasting chicken and fresh vats of beer all distract from one element to the next.
Meanwhile there’s crowds of friends laughing, dancing, drinking., many clumped in corners standing, others seated at the long wood tables.
Among them an assortment of both traditional and outlandish hats, the most popular being the various “chicken” hats.
At the center of a large and well-lit front-stage is “Heino,” the host of the Oktoberfest “show,” the man who keeps everyone laughing, coaxes them up on stage for the contests and begins the familiar group songs requiring the vast sea of an audience to respond with call-out lyrics.
He is a parody of “Heintje,” a kitschy German kid who made pop records in the 60s.
And once you get your chicken and beer and sausage and pretzel…
Once you push a pal up to join the lumber-sawing contest or another to join the chicken dance demonstration…
Once you find a place to stand or table to sit at, you find an infectious joy has hit you.
And you realize your smiling isn’t all the result of the beer or the music or the Heino antics.
Its a deeper sort of happy state and if one even wants to waste good fun time analyzing the reason for it is soon silently apparent enough when one looks up into the individual faces among the crowd.
They may be dressed, singing, and eating German but they are entirely American.
There’s a Filipino fellow who hasn’t missed an Alpine Village Oktoberfest for over a decade. He said he learned everything he needed to know from watching The Sound of Music.
Still, now in his genuine lederhosen, he dances with every Fraulein available.
There’s old German people speaking German with Korean kids who studied in Berlin. And crowds of friends with someone from every ethnicity. Maybe even Reds and Blues. And it goes on and on like that.
That’s the thing about Oktoberfest in Torrance. Along with a good number of those with German background, or Russian, Irish, Italian, Israeli, Australian, Slavic, Greek or Norwegian are those with ancestors from Brazil, Korea, Mexico, Japan, Guatemala, Korea, Ecuador, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Thailand, Cuba, the Philippines, Argentina, and other nations of Central and South America.
You can explain it away by looking at more Torrance demographics, such as the fact that some 17 percent of the population is Latino and 32 percent is Asian.
Or you can explain it by seeing just how all these people of different ages and backgrounds really love the beer.
And how, further, the beer breaks down barriers and everyone seems to be getting to enjoy everyone else a little bit easier, to the point where nobody is capable anymore of noticing who is who or what is what.
Or you can drink more beer and just enjoy it.
In that unpredictably zany way that the American interpretation of so many non-American cultural customs ricochet and boomerang off to morph into its own unique version, what began as a day of nationalistic pride in what was once a small German kingdom ways has resulted in an oddly patriotic event.
It’s not a waving of the old red-white-and-blue or a chant of what’s number one type of patriotism. It’s far more authentic, because it is felt and not thought.
Rather, it is the very realization for even just a brief few hours of what this nation still aspires to as an ideal, a pluralistic culture.
From one, many. E pluribus unum.
And when you exit into the parking lot, you can feel a little sad, because it will be another whole year before Oktoberfest in the shadow of the 110 Freeway is back again.
And maybe sad too because you leave wondering why life on the outside of the tent can’t be like life inside the tent.
Alright, watch the video so you can hear some of the great music:
- Oktoberfest Tips From Business Consumer Alliance (businessconsumeralliance.org)
- Say ‘Prost!’ to a raucous Oktoberfest bash (wholesalehalloweencostumes.com)
- 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Oktoberfest [PHOTOS] (coed.com)
- History of Oktoberfest (topconservativenews.com)
- Oktoberfest: Bring Bavaria to your kitchen (wrenkitchens.com)