A Brief, Rambling History of Oktoberfest

A Brief, Rambling History of Oktoberfest

Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes. I’m your auteur du jour, Jon O’Guin, and I have to have used that line before, right? It’s too good to have only happened now. Whatever. Listen, I’m not going to lie to you guys this post gets...a little weird. I didn’t have a plan for it, and I just finished a long trip, and to be honest, I’m not sleeping so great. I’ve realized that my friend’s couch was a more comfortable sleeping space than my own bed. Monday, I got back, I unpacked, and I called it an early night. I slept 12 hours, and still woke up tired. THEN, of course, I come back straight into 5 days of wind and rain, so the melancholy sting of fall is fully upon me. 

So, while I was going to write something about the fascinating spread of lactose tolerance around the world and how it informs various cuisines, I just don’t have the moral courage to do it at the moment. You may ask how much moral courage the history of cheese requires, to which I would say you are clearly not European. Trust me, cheese takes guts. And Gut bacteria. But that’s not important. 


Yeah, that's right, I said it's NOT IMPORTANT, Jamie! What're you gonna do about it?

I decided to cover a brief history of Oktoberfest instead. Because, honestly, I keep telling you all that “I’m across the state for Oktoberfest” and “I’m working Oktoberfest”, but I think the only time I ever explained anything about it was a single paragraph a year ago. And that’s a terrible foundation for understanding. So let’s hop back in our time machine to the year 1810, and learn what exactly we were celebrating.


Beethoven ain’t the Only Ludwig in Town

Now, my initial research into the thing noted that Oktoberfest is basically just the most well-known of the German Volksfests, so I have to explain what those are: “Volksfest” literally translates to “People’s Celebration”. Basically, they were spring or autumn fairs for German towns: the people would gather together to eat, sing, and dance as a community. Local brewers might set aside barrels specifically for“festbier”, to be drunk at the local fest.  Modern ones include food booths and amusement park rides and so forth. The oldest ones can be traced back as far as the 800’s. Yeah, I’m aware there’s no 1 on the front of that: we’re talking over 1100 years of drinking history. We're talking "Barely missed Charlemagne" tier history.


"Did somebody drop a church?"

Oktoberfest was first held over 207 years ago, and had a very simple explanation: it was just a giant wedding reception. Yeah, this was a thing back in the day: if a country was doing pretty well, when the king got married, EVERYONE was invited to the party. This specific king was…well, not the king. He was Kronprinz, which is the adorable German spelling of “Crown Prince”, Ludwig. (Last names weren’t common among nobility at the time.) Interestingly, because of that comment about Crown Prince, Ludwig is named after King Louis XVI, the last King of France, because “Ludwig” is the German for “Louis”, which is French for “Lewis”, all of which come from, and I’m not making this shit up, Hlodowik, a name so weird, we just write down anyone who had it as CLOVIS, a name with almost none of the same consonants.

Anyhow, Ludwig got married to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, because if you’re not going to have a last name, you can at least have a HUGE place-name tacked on, back in 1810. Ludwig set up horse racing tracks on a field outside his castle, (A field people ended up naming after his wife, which is either a great compliment, or a sweet burn, depending on the quality of the field) and held a week-long party, that included horse races, tons of beer, and a parade of children wearing stereotypical clothing of the major townships of Bavaria, meaning that The Small World ride at Disneyland is technically ripped off from a German parade.


Neither the first nor last time he would be inspired by German media. 

The whole thing was such a blast, everyone said “Hey, we should do this again next year.” And they did. And they basically kept doing it for 207 years. Over time, elements were added or changed: the festival was started earlier, since September has longer days than October, it was lengthened from one week to three, carnival booths started showing up, etc. They had to keep cancelling it some years because wars were going on at the time, or cholera was rampaging through the land or some such, but it would keep coming back. Eventually, in the 1960’s, they dropped the horse races. Presumably because three weeks’ worth of drunk Germans and high-strung racing horses were never a great mix, and it just took 150 years of horse kickings to figure it out.

Interestingly, that’s right around the time that the city of Leavenworth, where I keep gallivanting off to, decided to become a Bavarian-themed town: previously, it had just been, well, a town, and the home of a railway company and logging venture. But a new rail line moved those industries 30 minutes South to Wenatchee, and the small mountain town was struggling financially. They took a trip to, of all places, Southern California, where the town of Solvang offered them a solution: Solvang was a Danish enclave, built by Danish immigrants and their children, as a living model of traditional Danish architecture, dress, and life, and it had become quite prosperous as a tourist location, after the Prince of Denmark himself visited.

So Leavenworth adopted the themes of Bavaria, including Oktoberfest.


A Not-So-Brief Aside about Madness and Mice

I’d like to make a self-correction: I know, at least at one point in my life, I have made the claim that Ludwig I is the famous “Mad King Ludwig” of Bavaria. I discovered today that I am incorrect. Ludwig I, while not well-liked by the end of his life (a failed revolution turned him increasingly autocratic and paranoid, eventually forcing his abdication) was actually the grandfather of Ludwig II, colloquially known as “The Mad King”. His nickname derives from, well, ‘medical science’.


A system we had completely and fully mastered by the time. 

See, both Ludwigs were very liberal people, investors in arts programs and sponsors of large-scale architectural projects. They were also both very…sexually extravagant for their time, in opposing ways: Ludwig I was known for hitting on women CONSTANTLY, and had several suspected affairs. Ludwig II…was a shy gay man. He never married, never had children, and wrote in his letters and diary about how he had strong homosexual urges that he fought against, due to his Roman Catholic faith. As an interesting side note: at the time of his ascension, homosexuality wasn’t illegal in Bavaria, but it BECAME illegal partway through his reign when the German nations unified.  

Ludwig II was an avid supporter of the Theatre, in fact being widely considered to be entirely responsible for the lasting impact and career of operatic composer Richard Wagner: without Ludwig’s backing, it’s unsure if he would have ever completed the Ring Cycle (Wherein one finds the oft-used Ride of the Valkyries) or Tristan und Isolde. Ludwig was such a supporter of the arts, and a friend to Wagner that, after he was forced to ask the composer to leave Munich for scandalous behavior, he considered abdicating his throne to go with him.

ludwig 2.jpg

Yeah, that's the face of a man who would forsake his kingdom for his opera-bro.

He also spent ALL of his money building castles all over Germany. Not the government's money (other than his own paycheck), but his family’s considerably fortune. The CHEAPEST of his castles cost 6 million gold marks, or, adjusting for inflation, THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS. And, again, that was the cheap one. Another castle was roughly 15 million marks, or roughly SEVENTY-FIVE million dollars today.

To top it all off, Ludwig was not popular among the people. Or, rather, he was HUGELY popular among the people, but hated by the government: he was a recluse, who hated public functions and appearances, and hated going to Munich and actually running the country. He preferred to secretly wander the roads of Bavaria, talking with farmers and laborers, and giving lavish rewards to those who were kind to him. In the end, his cabinet reached out to his uncle, claiming they thought he was crazy, and asked him to step in and rule the country. The uncle agreed, assuming they could prove his madness.


Again, medical professionalism was at its PEAK at the time. 

Four doctors read statements from serving staff and ministers, as well as various gossip and rumors regarding the king, and pronounced him insane, despite having never met or studied him. Notably, at least one of the doctors was the son-in-law of the primary doctor, who pushed the diagnosis despite, or maybe because of,  running the center at which the king would be forced to stay following his deposition.

It’s notable that many attempted to come to the king’s defense: the original government squad dispatched to serve the king his papers was assaulted by a baroness, who smacked them about with her umbrella. Peasants and police forces rose to protect Ludwig, but were asked to disperse, and Ludwig was committed to an asylum on June 12th. He died, under mysterious circumstances, June 13th.

What did any of that have to do with cooking, or Oktoberfest? Relatively little. It’s just a sad story about the grandson of the guy we were talking about. But, of course, what kind of showman would I be if I left you with that as the final note? No, Ludwig II’s story has a somewhat more happy ending, if somewhat bittersweet. Remember that 30 million dollar castle I mentioned earlier? Well, after his death, the Royal Family ended up completing it, and selling tours through it. Ludwig had named Neuschwanstein Castle, and if you don’t recognize the name, you may wonder how many people would care about some German castle off in the mountains.

nite dan.jpg

Though, it does look kind of familiar...

Let me answer that question, assuming you're not a classical castle nerd like me: everyone. Everyone would come to care, in some way, about that castle. A visit to Neuschwanstein inspired an ambitious animator named Walt Disney to design the castle in the heart of his new theme park after it, a design that would go on to feature at the beginning of each and every film his studio produced. Sleeping Beauty's castle, and by extension the Walt Disney Logo, are both derived from Neuschwanstein.

And it was famous before that: By the start of WW1, tours of Ludwig’s castles were the primary source of income for the Bavarian royal family, paying out what he had withdrawn. While the family no longer collects the totals, in 2004, the revenue from tourism was 6 million Euros.  The castle was a finalist for the New Seven Wonders of the World, putting it on equal symbolic footing as The Eiffel Tower, the Acropolis, the Sydney Opera House, and the Statue of Liberty. In the end, Neuschwanstein is a towering testament to a man who sought only to make the world more beautiful, a symbol of the Romantic period, of a time when leaders were meant to be kind and generous, people worked hard, and you could get kicked in the head by a horse while really drunk on free beer.