With so many Lodi residents sharing a deep German heritage, it’s no surprise this month’s calendar is dotted with Oktoberfest dinners and celebrations. Party goers quaff steins of dark German beer, wearing lederhosen and dirndl dresses. The beer might be a major focus, but at the Lodi-Tokay Rotary’s Oktoberfest, it’s really about the food.
Mike Bennett, a longtime Rotarian, has run the kitchen for the largest iteration of this annual party in Lodi for eight years.
Planning used to take six months, but these days Bennett gets things rolling about 30 days ahead of the event. Rotarian members, especially the new folks, are assigned kitchen duties to help build relationships within the club.
“It’s kind of like marching an army,” he said. “I get everyone lined up and say go.”
The menu is full on German cuisine. A traditional bratwurst, made special for the event by Lakewood Meats in Lodi, is offered, along with a chicken schnitzel. Bennet created the recipe to keep up with the changing tastes of guests who aren’t keen on beef.
The schnitzel has a flaky, golden crust, with a lemon, butter, wine and caper sauce to add complexity, said Bennett.
One traditional feature of Oktoberfests the world over is hot potato salad. This is not what mom pulls out out the fridge to go with a summer barbecue. There’s celery, bacon, onions, and a crust made of cracker crumbs for a crisp topping.
“Some people have never had it. It’s different. Fattier, not as tangy, and smoky with the bacon,” said Bennett, who uses a family recipe for the dish. “It’s kind of famous in Lodi.”
Another special recipe brings to life Laverne Walths’s cheese buttons, which she has made for Lodi events for years.
Pickled red cabbage, fresh Kosher dill pickles and Dakota style saurkraut round out the offerings, along with a French roll made by the Genova Bakery in Stockton.
For dessert, Bennet will serve German chocolate cake or Bavarian kugen with coffee.
Everything is made fresh the day of save for the saurkraut, which must cure for at least two weeks ahead of serving to get that unique tart flavor.
This rich menu must be multiplied about 800 times to serve the comers expected this weekend.
Making the dinner happen takes ten volunteers working two shifts, which adds up to an eight hour day between cooking, set up and clearing the dishes at the end of the night. Leftovers are donated to the Salvation Army kitchen on Lockeford Street.
The first time Bennett took charge of the food, it was the City of Lodi’s Centenniel Celebration so he knew he had to put on a great event. Since then, the crowd has consistently come back for the German themed party.
“We’re pretty good at it,” he said. “If I couldn’t be proud of it, I wouldn’t put it out there.”