by Rebecca Persons
Caught in a whirlwind of twirling dirndls led by lederhosen-wearing partners, while chicken hats bob atop a crush of sausage lovers, visitors to New Braunfels’ Wurstfest might find themselves temporarily transported to another time and place. This beloved annual festival celebrating a continent-hopping, generations-deep love of all things sausage, sour and steeped-in-tradition, is in full swing, and music and dancing are ubiquitous. Cries of “Prost!” are jubilant, loud and frequent, and over the course of this five-decades-old, ten-day hurrah, tens of thousands of visitors will fill dance halls, the biergarten and the many, many lines leading to authentic German delicacies.
Nestled on the banks of the Comal River, the nonprofit festival began as the Sausage Festival in 1961—an idea from the then City Meat Inspector Ed A. Grist, to boost the economy and attract visitors to New Braunfels. The first event garnered a crowd of about 2,000 participants, as well as worldwide attention—particularly in Canada, Germany and most major U.S. cities. Over the years, attendance has continued to grow by the thousands.
Just inside ye olde Marketplatz, Martin Palm, one of the proud chefs who has preserved and shared his family’s recipes since they had the honor of securing a booth at the festival in 1966, is preparing for the day. “My parents immigrated in 1965 and became part of the Wurst Association in 1966,” he says. “My dad was a chef, and Mom…was just a real good cook. The Wurst stew we serve is Dad’s original recipe.”
The stew is heady, and fragrant with carrots, bell pepper, celery, myriad spices and, of course, plenty of handmade sausage—perfect for cup-warming the hands and pleasing the belly during the first chills of November. Palm is also one of the few left at the festival who serves a traditional “dinner plate” (variety plates were a huge part of German tradition until the late ’70s when sit-down dinners went out of fashion). Palm describes the dinner plate as the “best bang for your buck,” and it includes potato salad, sauerkraut and your choice of brat—either bier (mild smoke flavor and made with spices pulled from vats of beer), smoked (heavy smoke flavor made from cuts of beef and pork) or traditional Munich (white in color and made from cuts of beef, pork and veal that have been cooked lightly with spices).
Of course, the accompanying sauerkraut is handmade, too, from his mom’s long-standing family recipe—a blend of kraut, apples, caraway, cloves, pepper and garlic. Respect for heritage is a big thing here—many tiers of each family have worked and participated in the festival over the years; Palm’s own sons, uncle, cousins and nieces weave in and out of his booth during the day. “I haven’t missed a day of Wurstfest since 1977,” he says with pride. “Ever since I graduated high school.”
Longtime festival attendee Beverly Pryor has been coming to Wurstfest since the late ’70s to indulge in the kartoffelpuffer, or potato pancake. “I come for the food and the music. Mainly the polka music,” she says. “And the potato pancakes—these are the best.”
The pancakes (which usually produce the longest customer lines) are provided by the New Braunfels Rotary Club, a nonprofit that donates everything raised from the food booth to charities. Stoney Williams, chair of the Wurstfest fund–raiser for the club, notes that this signature item is the biggest moneymaker for the festival. “We use an old German recipe—older than the festival itself. But it’s been modified over the years for taste.” Fans love the salty, crispy outside surrounding a softer, fluffier inside, and a dollop of applesauce balances the sweet-to-savory. A Munich brat is often ordered on the side.
Other favorite foods include deep-fried sauerkraut balls, sausage on a roll or stick, funnel cakes, strudels and big soft pretzels, all of which go amazingly well with—big surprise—beer. German brewmasters apparently shared a flavor obsession with their fellow cooks, so much so that the Reinheitsgebot, or “Beer Purity Law”—a law that governs a beer’s quality, crispness, golden color and floral notes, all of which make it pair well with this particular cuisine—has been enforced in Germany since the 1500s. This means that pilsners are especially good at cutting through spice while resetting the palate in between trying different flavors, and Oktoberfests, dunkels and wheat beers are offered on draft throughout the festival to enhance meals and overall food experience.
Walking among the bright alpine clothing, cooked meats and thrumming polka music, the pride and passion invested in this event are palpable—tying together multiple families and generations. Wurstfest may have started as a simple way to celebrate sausage and boost the local economy, but it’s evolved into something much deeper and more complex. Prost!