Schmeckfest: South Dakota's Mennonite "dinner theater"
Photos by Nikki Miller
The scene is a community center basement in rural South Dakota. Your ticket in hand, you wait in line as one after another, satiated women and very pregnant-looking men, suspenders stretched over their stuffed bellies, exit the dining room, freeing up space for you and your party to sit at one of its many long white benches. You're finally seated next to families you've never met, brushing elbows with strangers as you're served nudel suppe, danpfleisch, kase mit knopfle, and kuchen. As you pass the geschmacke and sauerkraut, a man who grew up in a local Russian Mennonite colony compares his Low German dialect with the High German spoken by the man next to him, who likely learned his own dialect from parents emigrated to the farmlands of South Dakota from Germany. Pass the kaffe, bitte and danke.
To a food enthusiast traveling from the city, Schmeckfest is a Brave New (Old) World, to be sure.
Being held this year on Friday and Saturday, March 25 and 26 and April 1 and 2, in a small town just about an hour west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Schmeckfest is the annual celebration of ethnic foods, crafts, and traditions of the German Mennonites who emigrated from Russia in the 1870s, settling in the community of Freeman, South Dakota. The first Freeman Schmeckfest, which means "tasting festival," took place in 1959, making this year's gathering the 53rd of its kind. It features a full three-course meal, served communally at long tables in a basement by community volunteers, with nearly $100,000 in annual proceeds going to the Freeman Academy, a private school with an arts and faith-based curriculum, its roots in the 1900 South Dakota Mennonite College.
Kuchen for sale
You can expect this year's menu to look similar to last's, which featured:
- Nudel Suppe (Noodle Soup)
- Grune Schauble Suppe (Green Bean Soup)
- Danpfleisch (Stewed Beef)
- Bratwurst (Pork Sausage)
- Gebratene Kartofflen (Fried Potatoes)
- Kase mit Knopfle (Cheese Buttons)
- Salat (Lettuce Salad)
- Geschmacke (Relishes)
- Sauerkraut (Um, Sauerkraut)
- Zwiebach (Twin Buns)
- Schwarzbrotchen (Whole Wheat Buns)
- Pluma Moos (Dried Fruit Sauce)
- Kuchen Mach Kuchen (Poppy Seed Rolls)
- Kaffee (Coffee)
Schmeckfest has grown significantly since 1959, a year when guests were encouraged to "take all you want, but eat all you take," and the festival has over time expanded from one day to four. When you compare its first year with its most well-attended (2008), you get a roomful of South Dakotans who ate: four gallons of grune schauble suppe vs. 48, 90 pounds of danpfleisch vs. 500, seven gallons of sauerkraut vs. 34, and 1.3 pounds of coffee vs. 48.
The festival also features displays of culinary and handicraft arts--think kuchen and quilts-- historical presentations in its museum dedicated to the history of German pioneers and Native Americans, and a full-stage musical theater production performed by locals: Jesus Christ Superstar last year, and Kiss Me Kate this.
Museum dedicated to Native American history on Schmeckfest grounds
Museum dedicated to German pioneer history on Schmeckfest grounds
Meal tickets are sold in advance, and advance seats for the musical are also available, but they do go fast. Perhaps there's not much else to do in sleepy Freeman, South Dakota.
Freeman is just under five hours from the Twin Cities. Check it out--you just might make a neuer freund.
Food prepared by community members available for purchase
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