Why I Went to Oktoberfest and Only Ate Fish

When you think of Oktoberfest, you probably think of bratwurst washed down with bladder-weakening steins of beer, but in Munich, things are very different.

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Sep 29 2016, 1:00pm

"Take a tissue, you're going to need one."

The man in the alpine hat and leather shorts nods towards a stack of tissues, piled about 10 centimeters away from a pair of large, solid, pine-colored tits. The bosom (when they reach this heft, I think we can refer to them as a "bosom") belongs to an unsmiling cashier, and is strapped into the heaving confines of a dirndl dress.

To my left, a skinny guy in tracksuit pants sizes up to punch a bear-like man wearing thickly-knitted cardigan and leather braces, while the flash of a rollercoaster skims past behind me. The sky above is turning matte against the winking illumination of a giant, rotating beer stein.

I'm at Oktoberfest. I mean, of course I am.

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Oktoberfest, the annual 16-day beer festival held in Munich. All photos by the author.

This September, Munich's Oktoberfest seems slightly smaller than previous years—the piles of vomit less noticeable, the crowds less thick, the streets slightly quieter. My friend Dominick explains that fears over terrorism have led many locals to stay away.

And yet, it is still clearly a huge institution. This 16-day volksfest has been celebrated in Bavaria since the early 1800s, marking both the marriage of King Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810, but also the harvest that comes at the end of the busy agricultural summer months.

READ MORE: This Beer Maid Will Work Oktoberfest Until She Dies

When you hear the word "Oktoberfest," you probably think of all the pink and questionable delights our porcine cousins have to offer: pig knuckle, bratwurst, pork chops, bockwurst, suckling pig, all washed down with eye-watering, bladder-weaking steins of beer. You may also think of spatzle (pasta stodge), knoedle (dumpling stodge), spit-roasted chicken, pretzels (bread stodge), and those strange heart-shaped biscuits women seem to wear like cowbells around their neck during this festival of beer and bacchanalia.

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What you might not think of are fish heads. So it's with some surprise that I find myself under the huge yellow and blue fabric swags of the Fischer Vroni beer hall, surrounded by 78 shades of inebriation, smelling—well, fish. Roasted fish, to be precise. There are literally hundreds of screamingly drunk people around me—standing on benches, clashing glasses, shouting "Prost!" as they swill beer down their chests, dancing in the aisles, singing along to the live band like wolves howling at the moon—and yet it was the fish I couldn't believe.

The summer barbecue, sunset-in-Cornwall smell of roasting mackerel is everywhere, somehow at odds with the bingo-hall-come-freshers-week scene of Bavarian boozing all around me.

And so I follow my nose outside, to where a large man in blue dungarees and a peaked cap is raking through a swimming pool-length trough of burning coals. On either side of the coals, like the ribs of a beached whale, are large vertical metal spikes impaled with mackerel, trout, and arctic char.

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Mackerel and trout roasting over coals.

This set-up is often described on the Oktoberfest website as "fish cooked on spikes." That makes it sound like you'll be buying lightly charred cubes of fish cooked like a kebab. Not so. When I buy my mackerel, the whole thing is simply lifted off the spike, rolled in a sheet of paper like a bottle of wine at a liquor shop and handed to me greasy and piping hot.

Despite the swilling quantities of beer inside the Fischer Vroni hall, out here, beverages seem somewhat thin on the ground. And the entire fish is rolled in salt. I mean, encased in salt. Imagine dragging your tongue along the hard baked rocks of Bonneville Salt Flats after a packet of Walkers Ready Salted and a quick swill of seawater and you'll be somewhere close to the saltiness of that fish. In a slightly questionable move, my boyfriend then decides that what we really need to finish off this meal is a giant pretzel.

I mean, sure. A salt-encrusted bread plait the size of my head is exactly what I need.

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The roasted and salted mackerel.

But the fish is amazing. Rarely do you get to eat chunks of fish that size. It lifts off the large bones like butter and tastes like coal, smoke, the ocean, and summer. I may be standing over a wooden shelf, in a landlocked city in the shadow of mountains, surrounded by men dressed like gnomes and women dressed like semi-pornographic milkmaids but, in my mouth at least, I am staring out over a setting sun and wine red sea.

READ MORE: Oktoberfest's History of Sexual Assault and Violence

At this point, my boyfriend starts to look rather pale. As I hold up the spine of my recently digested dinner to my face, his eyes started to swell and sweat drips off his brow.

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"I think I'm going to be sick," he stutters, before marching swiftly out of the hall and towards a drinks stall. He later explains that the sheer amount of salt consumed over the previous eight minutes had caused his saliva glands to go into overdrive, flooding his mouth like the Atlantic and causing him to think he might puke.

Still, I thought, if you're going to puke anywhere, it might as well be at Oktoberfest. Prost!