Most folks might not give a lot of thought to the cultural histories of the food on their plates. But there is a growing network of Texans who recognize that the past is always present, whether it’s on a plate of pit-smoked barbecue or rolled up in yellow cheese enchiladas doused in cumin-scented gravy and topped with even more yellow cheese.
Enter Foodways Texas, an organization founded by a diverse group of journalists, academics, chefs, farmers and food artisans dedicated to archiving and making Texan food visible through documentary films, oral histories, symposia, recipe collections — and, by extension, events like this year’s inaugural Austoberfest. The fest, hosted by the Austin Saengerrunde, takes place Saturday, September 28, at Saengerrunde Hall.
“The Saengerrunde wanted to fill that space in Austin where there wasn’t really a celebration of German-Texan culture,” says Marvin Bendele of Foodways Texas.
“The Saengerrunde wanted to fill that space in Austin where there wasn’t really a celebration of German-Texan culture,” explains Foodways Texas executive director Marvin Bendele. “I’m attracted to what they’re doing because a lot of the Oktoberfests around the state of Texas have devolved into this large, commercial venture where you pay $30 for a pitcher of Bud Light. I want it to reflect as much about German Texans as possible.
“When you’re talking about German Texans, you’re talking about a ton of mixing and diversity.”
Austoberfest is a fundraising benefit for Foodways Texas and will help finance the nonprofit’s next project: an oral history project documenting German-Texan food culture, starting with the members of the Saengerrunde.
“In the past we’ve gone into restaurants to document what they’re doing there; with this project, we’re going to be documenting what people are eating in their homes,” Bendele says. “We’re going to get at their histories through what they’re putting on their tables.”
The Austin Saengerrunde is a singing society established by German immigrants in 1879. With the men’s choir at its center, it has owned and operated both Saengerrunde Hall and Scholz Garten for more than 100 years.
“Our objective is to spread gemutlichkeit,” says society president Brian Michalk. “There’s no direct translation, but it’s like fellowship.
“We do that in various ways. We are a singing club, and we have bowling leagues for fellowship, a beer garden for fellowship and our seasonal festivals for fellowship. Our objective in all of those is to spread the German culture.
“Foodways Texas’ mission is to observe and document the culture surrounding food and how it affects our lives,” Michalk says. “That is really almost exactly what we do, but instead of food, ours is music. The two organizations are very well aligned.”
As such, German food and music are at the center of this weekend’s Austoberfest, with traditional sausage on offer from purveyors like Salty Sow, Opa’s Smoked Meats and La Barbecue; traditional breads from Easy Tiger; and a variety of beers from Paulaner and Hacker-Schorr. Attendees can also expect singing, both from the Saengerrunde and from local bands like White Ghost Shivers and the Possum Posse, among others.
Both Bendele and Michalk anticipate that Austoberfest will grow in the coming years, providing Austinites the opportunity to learn more about and celebrate German culture, one chicken dance at a time.