Free Kraut and Mustard Smuggling: May Fest in Chicago’s Lincoln Square

We waited until the end to order food, until the most alcohol was in our blood, because all along we’d wanted to gorge, but, prices being what they were, we needed a conscience loophole – “I was drunk.” We waited too long.

“We’re out of bratwurst.”

“What do you have left?”

“Thüringer and sauerkraut, three dollars.”

“We’ll take as many of those as possible, please. One, two, three…” We counted out 11 tickets for the grandma in the apron. “Take a $1 bill?” She grabbed it.

Realizing how much kraut we were about to receive, she came back to double check and put an end to the argument in her head – three drunk kids or serious customers? “All with kraut?”

“Jaaaaa!!!!!!” We clashed mugs and slapped backs.

“What is this?” she must have thought, confused by her own joy. “Kids excited about kraut? I’ve been waiting all day for someone to get excited about kraut! Most people without lederhosen give it a groan, at best. But it’s so good!”

The mustard inventory drops with the sun.
The mustard inventory drops with the sun.
She served up four oily red Thüringers and four fur balls of kraut. Just as we were about to dig in, a man edged in beside us, seeking mustard, silently scouting around, pumping the dry pump.

“You looking for mustard?” I asked.


“Hold on. We’ve got your mustard. Get this guy some mustard. Gimme the bag.” The little girl of our trio, whom nobody expected to be packing heat, turned around and presented her baby blue backpack. “Here we go now. Mustard, coming right up!”

I unzipped the bag and my accomplice pulled out an unlabeled glass jar half-filled with a sandy paste. “Mustard!” he said, holding it high. “You want some mustard? Here’s the mustard!”

“No, it’s… quite alright, thanks.” The man began backing away, mustardless.

“Hold on! Smell it!” I thrust the uncapped jar within an inch of his nostrils and whispered, “This is Rhinegeld’s German mustard with white wine.”

A low voice from the back: “It’s the secret stash…”

“Smells good,” he called over his shoulder, now three shuffles away. The man had turned his back on legitimate, unspiked (well, wine), unroofied German mustard, an hour before the closing of May Fest, directly below the Maypole in Lincoln Square.

“It’s right here if you change your mind,” squeaked the little girl with the big beer.

Despite his denial, our jar, the only jar of mustard in a fifty-yard radius, started to draw a crowd that previously had been united only in thought: “I could use some mustard on this thing.” They crushed around the jar on the corner of the table, elbowing for a turn with the plastic knife.

“We need more.” I pulled the pump out of what had been given up as an expired tub and dropped it in an empty stein. Peeked inside and, sure enough, there was a tract of mustard down there. I turned the tub over and started to play it like a bongo, but with urgency. What came out was only enough to do justice to one Thüringer.

Another peek. “There’s still mustard in there! We gotta get that mustard out!” I began pounding the tub up and down on the table like a monkey frustrated by a coconut. Taking on the role of fire chief, I demanded a “big, sharp knife” from the counter manager. He took stock of his liabilities, and, luckily for both of us, didn’t hand it over.

“Keys!” Keys appeared in my hand and I jabbed at the tub’s heart. The plastic merely folded. More force! More power! More German! Ja! “We’re in!” I sawed the tub open and four knives descended. Mustard blitz. Let ’em have it. We still have the secret-secret stash.

Thüringers inhaled, we scraped the remains of our kraut onto one plate and dumped on mustard from our second jar. At the same time, sauerkraut piled up behind the counter. No one wanted it. A surplus?

I caught the eye of the lady in the apron. “I’d love some kraut, but I don’t have any more tickets.” She paused, then nodded in receipt of the password. Two heaping plates of kraut, free kraut, appeared in front of us. But don’t think they were free.

Being able to ask for kraut – to say you want it, you love it – isn’t easy. It’s a privilege that’s earned. It’s two or three times a week over the course of a childhood, probing the kraut, throwing it, pushing it around, hiding it under mashed potatoes, in napkins, in the dog’s stomach, finally forcing it down, in tears, then eating it with ketchup (blasphemy!), then fearing that your parents might find out you actually like it (they’ve been there too…), then, the true milestone of your sixteenth birthday, a whole-hearted welcoming of the kraut. You try it with beer and fully pop through to the other side as a lifelong kraut fanatic, and soon you’re reading every word on the packaging of every brand in the supermarket, trying to engineer the perfect combo of kraut, mustard and beer, speculating on the ratios of no less than seven flavors like a Bavarian Willy Wonka.

And maybe, just maybe, if you happen to have returned from Germany within a week of May Fest, you can slip a silent German accent on your request, only perceptible through the efficiency of the movement of your lips. Then, smile with a crinkled nose and a benevolence in your eyes nodding to the fact that, far enough back, you and the kraut dealer are probably related, or at least had relatives who suffered through the same bad winters, defended raids and raided, held onto a scrap of ground, and, at some point, decided to scrap the scrap and move to America because accepting the conditions at home had become a less appealing option than starting from scratch.

If, upon recognizing an asymmetry in the kraut market, you can pull off the above maneuver and make it look easy like walking on a barrel, then you, German-American May Fest reveler, have earned your free kraut. Just make sure you’ve brought your mustard.