Octoberfest Dinner in JFK America
This dinner* was served on October 23, 1961 to a gathering of the Wine and Food Society of Southern California. The locale was the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Van Nuys. The brewery, built in 1954, still operates, with another in the state of 1970s vintage, at Fairfield.
This was a “member cook” event, which is self-explanatory. Probably the dishes were brought to the site and heated or chilled as needed in the kitchen of the hospitality room.
A Feierliches Fest is, to my understanding, a celebration event or party. In Munich in 1961 Oktoberfest was held from September 23 until October 8. See its fabulous poster with the dates shown in Jay R. Brooks’ blogpost, here.
The Los Angeles gastronomes elected a fest later in October, at Anheuser-Busch. Many North American celebrations inspired by Oktoberfest occurred and still do through the month of October. The members had a preliminary tasting in the “Brew Room”.
I’m not clear exactly what that was, whether an actual production area, or the hospitality room as then named. When the brewery opened in 1954, as reported in the Los Angeles Daily News on June 26, 1954 the press was feted in its “Rathskeller”. The Rathskeller term also appears in a caption to a 1955 photo showing American Legion members being hosted (via Calisphere).
While the L.A. tasters in 1961 did not use the term Rathskeller, the dinner itself almost certainly was held there, but they may have sampled beer first in the actual brewhouse.
At the time Anheuser-Busch brewed Budweiser, Michelob, and Busch Bavarian. The last, a popular-price brand, is now called simply Busch. The light and other iterations came later.
Since Budweiser and Michelob were served with the dinner, what other “selected beer” might have been tasted in the Brew Room, apart Busch Bavarian? A Michelob Dark perhaps, as I have seen a 1958 menu of the Society in which the beer is mentioned next to “light” Michelob.
Maybe Budweiser, Michelob(s) and Busch Bavarian were first tasted on draft, with bottles served at dinner. Michelob in particular, but also Budweiser were considered top quality then, among the best America made and rivalling good imports, especially Michelob.
A chance to drink Michelob at will would be embraced by any beer student of the day. Michelob, previously a draught-only beer, was first bottled in the year this dinner was held,1961. A business story on August 24 that year in Washington, D.C.’s Evening Star stated the new format would appear “before long”.
Probably by October 23 it was available in Los Angeles, especially as Anheuser-Busch had a brewery there. Its lava lamp look, a design value of the period albeit the famous lava lamp came out in 1963, had to impress the members.
An ad in the Plattsburgh [New York] Press-Republican in 1963 (via NYS Historic Newspapers) shows the distinctive bottle (later altered somewhat in design):
This bottled Michelob, and the draft after its introduction, included some rice in the mash. As beer historians know, before 1961 draft Michelob was 100% barley malt, a richer-tasting formulation.
Today, regular Michelob is all-malt again although it seems to me not as good as even the adjunct beer it replaced, but I digress.
The meal started with oysters and cold meats. While today one does not associate Germany with oysters, it appears the German North Sea at one time abounded in the flat European oyster. See “Return of the native: Survival, growth and condition of European oysters reintroduced to German offshore waters” by Verena Merk, Bérenger Colsoul, and Bernadette Pogoda (2020).
Today, the oyster beds they describe are fallow although proposals have been floated to restore the stock. Facebook discussions attest to a tradition among some families of Prussian or Russian German background to eat oyster stew on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve.
Some say though it is a spin-off of American immigration. Yet others say there is no consensus. With this background, I think it is reasonable to say a meal does not lose German character by including oysters.
Certainly oysters with beer is a North American tradition, and October is a good month to serve them, so perhaps this explains the bivalves on the menu. The L.A. Society’s menus seem to have stressed oysters in general especially in half-shell form, that should be said as well.
Beer soup was a good inclusion, of which there are many types in Germany and Central Europe. Trout in wine sauce sounds excellent, and many recipes can be found online. The next dish: rabbit stew and sauerkraut with potato pancakes, hasenpfeffer, in other words. An iconic German dish that often features vinegar and strong seasoning.
The meal finished with German cheesecake and coffee. An ace meal by any description.
Unlike even before World War II, by 1961 American beer was not strongly associated with German culture and traditions, I mean outside an ethnic context. Most early menus of the Society in which beer figured (1938-1961) did not feature German eating although a couple of dinners did.
The earlier beer events generally featured North American cuisine, often BBQ or steak, miscellaneous European food, and once, an Indonesian menu. For the 1961 event an evident attempt was made to conjure a German tradition with beer, perhaps due simply to the month, or the fact that the Society had not done it very often.
The result, intentional or not, was to recall a much earlier period in American beerways, when lager beer and German eating were a twain in many centres of the country.
*Menu extracts are copyright of the Wine and Food Society of Southern California, reproduced with its kind permission. No further reproduction or use is authorized without its prior written consent. Newspaper extract is via NYS Historic Newspapers as linked in text, and all intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable; used for educational and research purposes, all feedback welcomed.