Story, photos and recipes by Cynthia Nobles
It’s almost time for Germanfest, Roberts Cove’s version of Germany’s world-famous Oktoberfest. Like celebrations in Munich and Stuttgart, Acadiana’s Germanfest features plenty of oompah music and beer. Unlike the storied festival in Germany, which originated as a wedding celebration for a crown prince, our Germanfest began as the family reunion of a group of rice farmers.
Roberts Cove lies in Acadia Parish a few miles north of Rayne. This small, quiet community was founded in 1880 by Father Peter Thevis, who grew up in Longbroich, Germany. (The American-sounding name Roberts Cove came from Benjamin Roberts, the original holder of the area’s Spanish land grant.) Upon surveying the uninhabited region, Father Thevis quickly sent pamphlets to 36 different German villages, talking up southwest Louisiana like it was some kind of paradise. He also personally visited the Rhineland, promising Louisiana farmland to those who were war-weary and persecuted religiously.
Over time Father Thevis was joined by homesteaders mainly from the Aachen, Germany region. The settlers were farmers and bore surnames like Thevis, Vondenstein, Ohlenforst, Dischler, Leonards, Hensgens, Gossen, Ronkartz, Wirtz, Reiners, and that of my mother’s family, Zaunbrecher.
In the middle of the Cajun-French prairie, they built two-story farmhouses, many adorned with Victorian bric-a-brac. They raised cattle and began growing grains.
In this hot, wet region, rice naturally became their preferred crop. The Germans were the first in the area to sell rice commercially, and took advantage of a newly-built railway system that connected New Orleans to Texas. They also made many crop production innovations, such as using water wells and threshers with steam engines. In little time they became financially successful.
These transplanted Germans were also devoutly Catholic, and they went right to work starting a Catholic school. By 1885, the church parish of St. Leo IV was established. For years, it was on the oak-shaded grounds of the tiny St. Leo IV Catholic Church where family reunions of the original German settlers were held.
My siblings and I used to count the days to the “reunion.” That’s when our mom’s siblings and cousins would gather around the church yard picnic tables on the first Sunday of October. The ladies spent most of the day talking, while the men drank beer and listened to baseball on the radio. We kids tossed around a football, munched on mom’s fried chicken, and were allowed to down all the soft drinks we wanted.
Things would heat up a little in the afternoon, when my uncles Otto and Willie would pick up their guitar and fiddle. It seemed like the more beer my uncles drank, the better they played. Many older relatives joined them singing. Many of those songs were sung in German, a language I knew nothing about.
Dr. Phillip Fabacher, director of the German Heritage Museum on the St. Leo church grounds, tells me that our first reunion was in 1956, and was the brainchild of W. F. Zaunbrecher, Charles Zaunbrecher, and Nick Gossen. “One day the three first cousins met at the Crowley bus station for breakfast,” Fabacher said. “Over biscuits and coffee, they complained that the younger generations did not know their cousins. So they started the reunion tradition with their extended families.”
Soon after, other Roberts Cove families were holding reunions, with the larger families alternating reunion years. By 1995, the ever-growing private reunions had ended, and along came Germanfest, a public festival with a family reunion feel.
There’s a lot of things going on at Germanfest, which is held on the same St. Leo Church grounds as our old reunions. Beer, of course, is available for sale. Volunteers cook and sell traditional German treats, such as bratwurst, sauerkraut with potatoes, potato stew, and the popular zucker platzkens (sugar cookies), as well as American favorites corn dogs, hot dogs, and hamburgers. Food demos include recipes for specialties such as sausage and sauerkraut.
The music is authentic German, with bands with names like Alpenmusikanten and Auf Geth’s. Last year, one of my favorite performances came from the spectacular McNeese Alphorn Ensemble.
In one area of the grounds are children’s activities. In a nod to the area’s rich rice history, there’s also an antique tractor display and rice threshing demos. The museum is also open, as well as a souvenir shop with hand-crafted items.
Germanfest gives everyone a chance to learn about the historical significance of Roberts Cove and the area’s unique culture. It also gives me the opportunity to visit with relatives I rarely see anymore, as well as friends who aren’t related.
This year’s Germanfest will honor the Heinen family, and will be held Saturday, October 7, and Sunday, October 8. Address: 7212 Roberts Cove Road, Rayne. Admission: $8 for 13 and older. For more information go to www.robertscovegermanfest.com.
Sauerkraut and Spareribs
Makes 4 servings (Adapted from a recipe provided by the Madeline Habetz Cramer family)
1 large (2½-pound) slab pork spareribs
2 (14.5-ounce) or 3 (8-ounce) cans sauerkraut
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1. Cut pork slab into individual ribs. Coat the inside of an electric skillet or deep frying pan with cooking spray. Heat the skillet over medium-high. Brown the ribs well on all sides, sprinkling 2 or 3 times with Creole seasoning while browning.
2. Turn heat to low and cook ribs, covered, until tender, about 2 hours. Add water as needed to keep from sticking. There should be a small amount of gravy at the bottom of the skillet when the ribs are fully cooked.
3. In a separate saucepan, bring the sauerkraut to a boil and heat it thoroughly. Strain the sauerkraut well, making sure no liquid remains. Pour the strained sauerkraut over the ribs. Sprinkle the sugar and caraway seeds over the sauerkraut, and do not stir. Cover, bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer 2 minutes. Stir to combine the mixture. Bring to a simmer and cook 15-20 minutes. Serve warm.
Bratkartoffeln (German Fried Potatoes), with Bacon
Makes 4 servings
Traditional German fried potatoes are cut into slices, not chunks, but I find the chunk method easier to work with. My mom made this recipe with smoked sausage, and she made it often.
2 pounds russet or Yukon gold potatoes
6 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
Salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1. Boil potatoes until barely cooked. Peel and cool. Cut potatoes into large chunks and set aside.
2. In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet set over medium heat, cook bacon until brown and crisp. Leaving drippings in the pan, remove bacon and set aside on paper towels.
3. Sauté onion in bacon fat a few minutes. Raise heat to medium-high and add butter. Add the potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook until potatoes form a brown crust on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Scrape potatoes up and cook until they brown all over, about 10 minutes more. Add more butter as necessary to keep from sticking.
4. Add cooked bacon and sauté until the mixture is thoroughly heated through. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.
Makes 1 loaf
Tender and moist, and easy to make.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda
12 ounces beer or ginger ale, room temperature
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons melted butter
1. Heat oven to 375° and place a foil-lined cookie sheet on the middle rack. Grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan and set aside.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Stir in beer and vegetable oil until just combined.
3. Scoop batter into prepared pan and smooth out the top. Pour on the melted butter. Place on the cookie sheet in the oven and bake until top is brown, 50-60 minutes. (Internal temperature should be 190°F.) Cool completely before slicing. Keeps in an airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.
Zucker Platschen (Sugar Cookies)
Makes about 5 dozen, depending on size (Adapted from a recipe from Donna Leonards, who got it from her grandmother Maria Frey Leonards, who got it from her mother, Lambertina Heinen Frey, who brought it from Germany.)
These thin, crisp cookies are in great demand at the Roberts Cove Germanfest.
3¾ cups sugar, divided
2 sticks salted butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs
¼ cup whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5½ cups all-purpose flour, divided
3 teaspoons baking powder
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, use medium mixer speed to cream together 2¼ cups sugar and the butter for 2 minutes. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, and vanilla. Beat the egg mixture into the butter mixture.
2. Sift together 4 cups flour and the baking powder. Use low mixer speed to gradually add the flour mixture to the butter mixture. Form the dough into a ball and separate it into 4 equal pieces.
3. Combine the remaining 1½ cups sugar and 1½ cups flour. To keep dough from sticking while rolling, use this sugar/flour mixture to sprinkle on a hard work surface and on your rolling pin. Roll each piece of dough as thinly as possible. Cut cookies with anything you like, such as round or decorative cookie cutters, the mouth of a drinking glass, or even into squares with a knife.
4. Bake cookies until light brown, about 10-12 minutes. Cool completely. Store in airtight containers.