Schmeckfest gut!: It Tastes Good at Wishek’s 80th Sauerkraut Festival

Donovan, Lauren. "Schmeckfest gut!: It Tastes Good at Wishek’s 80th Sauerkraut Festival." Bismarck Tribune, 16 October 2005, sec. 1-2C.

WISHEK—For one glorious fall day, Wishek throws the food pyramid right out the window.

Gott im Himmel, it’s verboten to even talk about nutrition at a speck fest, especially a fest that features sauerkraut above all.

Here’s what you do, instead, verstehen?

First, put on a pair of work pants with an elastic waistline. Suspenders will do in a pinch.

This fest is not for the gastronomically challenged—nein!

Then you get in line with about 1,200 other people in a beautiful old quarried stone building that serves as a community center a block off main street.

When you reach the front of the line – hopefully you haven’t disgraced yourself with any shoving, or jostling – you grab a sturdy Styrofoam plate and hang on with both der mits.

A nice German, or Norwegian, or somebody from Wishek will load it plump up.

Wishek’s police chief, Tom Welder, takes a turn at churning up the sauerkraut and sausages in one of the large cooking kettles. In back are chief cook, LeRoy Wanner, left, and Bruce Herr.

First comes creamy white potatoes flavored with a hefty dab of pale margarine followed by as many spoons full of off-white sauerkraut flavored with rendered white pork fat as you nod your head at.

Where foodies concerned with health and all that nonsense suggest colorful fruits and vegetables on a plate, Wishek-ians have their own version.

There’s enough red dye in the wieners cooked with the speck and kraut to decorate a Christmas tree.

This is real food, the kind that fueled men and women for a day’s work and made them long for a digestive nap somewhere along about mid-afternoon.

In Wishek, the 80th annual sauerkraut festival was observed on Wednesday.

It isn’t clear who’s counting.

It’s just a lot of fun for the town and free to everyone who comes.

Leroy Wanner, 62, was having just about as much fun as anybody in town.

He’s the kraut king, the guy with a beard and a twinkle in charge of figuring out how much and how to do it.

There’s always a line of people waiting to get into Wishek’s auditorium on Sauerkraut Day. The auditorium is a historic stone structure constructed by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s.

Wanner was busy behind the scenes.

The speck, kraut, and weenies are made in a small building a block from the community center. Over the years, Wanner has rigged up two 60-gallon vats that are fired by propane, vented to the outside and the vittles are stirred with a four-pronged pitchfork.

Wanner has two forks, but said he didn’t have time to clean the manure off the other.

He apprenticed under Reiny Schaffer to become a kraut master and now his son, Pat, 33, is learning the ropes.

"It’s a steady process," said Pat Wanner. "It takes some politics."

Yah, sure, but he could be the prince of kraut.

Leroy Wanner gets up early on the big day to render the pork into speck, little bits of fat and meat that add the salty flavor to the kraut concoction.

All those people over at the community hall would consume 20 gallons of kraut, mixed with 40 pounds of speck and 90 pounds of bright red weenies before the day was over.

McKenna Walth, 2, was the smallest kraut eater in the place and she had three helpings.

Her, mom, Heather, is about to add to the family and she was hoping the sauerkraut would speed things along.

Wilbert Sayler drove down from Bismarck, closing up his barbershop for the day just for the occasion.

Sayler said he never tells his age, because he doesn’t want to create a generation gap.

Florence Zeigenhagel, 80, claims to have attended all 80 of Wishek’s Sauerkraut Day events.

Florence Ziegenhagel makes a point of telling folks she’s 80 – as old as the kraut fest itself.

She says it’s likely she’s been to every one of them, certainly every one she’s been able to get to on her own.

She was having some medical tests done Wednesday and said she just about didn’t get to the free meal on time.

"This might be the last one," she said.

It was a good one. School kids sang songs in German and the entertainment went on into the afternoon as the smell of sauerkraut hung in the air.

Outside the hall, in the hustle of people leaving and chatting, Dick Just, of Wishek, leaned up against a low stone entrance wall and enjoyed a plate of food in the soft autumn drizzle.

He said he doesn’t eat sauerkraut all year long, doesn’t even like it all that much.

But once a year – coincidentally just in time for the festival – his saliva glands kick in and something strange starts to happen.

"I develop a craving for it," he said.

Next year, long about mid-October, it’ll probably happen again

A guy doesn’t have to be all that German to want more kraut on occasion.

After all, it schmeckt gut!

Chief cook LeRoy Wanner shows the secret ingredient for a successful Sauerkraut Day. Wanner said the bucket contained specht, a pork product that gives the sauerkraut flavor.
Lynette Boyko, of Bismarck, dresses up her plate of sauerkraut with a popular condiment.
Wishek’s city auditorium is a crowded place during the sauerkraut festival, where friends and neighbors visit and listen to the entertainment.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller