By Claudia Alarcon
In the fall of 1999, in the midst of a heady courtship, I made the short trek from Austin to New Braunfels with my future husband, Will Larson, who was beginning to embrace his German heritage. The purpose of the visit: to attend Wurstfest, the town’s self-proclaimed “10-Day Salute to Sausage” and proud celebration of all things German. Will wore a pair of authentic lederhosen and a Bavarian hat he had brought back from Germany, and we polkaed badly to the Shiner Hobo Band, ate giant sausages on a stick, and drank beer out of little plastic cups. That day, I realized that Wurstfest not only unites the whole city and surrounding area, but it also offers a chance for those with German heritage to congregate and pass down their culture and traditions. It was heartwarming. We became regular attendees.
Last year, Wurstfest celebrated its 50th anniversary, and we were not about to miss it. We arrived early on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the festival grounds at Landa Park, on the cypress-lined banks of the Comal River. I enjoy watching the atmosphere change throughout the day, and we wanted to catch the performance by Blasorchester der Freiwilligen Feuerwehr Bonbaden, a full brass band from Baden, Germany. We were also really hungry—ready to eat our favorite foods-on-a-stick.
Here’s the festival layout: As you enter the grounds, you’ll find abundant booths selling drink tickets; you can use cash for food. Next to Das Grosse Zelt (the Big Tent), where most of the major acts perform, a Ferris wheel dominates the carnival area, providing revelers with a bird’s-eye view of the festival grounds. The nearby Biergarten beckons with picnic tables under the oak trees, and the Kinderhalle, an entertainment area for children, features live performers and arts activities. The historic Wursthalle, built as a cottonseed warehouse in the early 1900s, features continuous music and a huge dance floor, all surrounded by partygoers. Every hour or so, bands launch into the Chicken Dance, and it seems that everyone in New Braunfels has known the moves since childhood. Directly behind the Big Tent, the Marktplatz buzzes with vendors selling food and drinks, German arts and crafts, antique dolls, ornate beer steins, and embroidered items, as well as Wurstfest buttons, T-shirts, and over-the-top hats. On the other side of the Marktplatz, Das Kleine Zelt (the Little Tent) also features live bands throughout the day.
But we were focused on the food: Will loves the bratwurst with sauerkraut on a bun, and the giant sausages with the dinner roll speared at the bottom of the stick to catch the drippings as you eat them; I am partial to the succulent grilled pork-chops-on-a-stick from the New Braunfels Little League. Judging by the constant long lines, the all-around favorites are the golden kartoffelpuffer: potato pancakes served with applesauce and sour cream. And since this is Central Texas, you’ll find juicy links of jalapeño sausage wrapped in hot flour tortillas.
As we approached Das Grosse Zelt, we could hear the sounds of a traditional brass oompah band. I looked around me to take in the multicultural scene: groups wearing little felt hats covered in pins from Wurstfests past; families with toddlers on their laps and children eating popsicles; couples dressed in matching Bavarian costumes; whole tables clapping in unison and quaffing pitchers of beer. The bandleader addressed the crowd in perfect English with a thick German accent: “And now we will play a song for our American friends,” he said before the band launched into a spirited version of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” I became overwhelmed with emotion. Only at Wurstfest, I thought, would I witness such a scene.
As the sun set, the Alex Meixner Band took the stage. Meixner, a Grammy-nominated musician and accordion virtuoso, rocked the tent with explosive polkas while the Ferris wheel lit up in the background and costumed college kids began arriving. My face hurt from smiling. We drove back to Austin, certain of Wurstfest’s bright future, and knowing we’ll be there to experience it as often as we can.