James Bullard and Emily Wilson are bold people. Every October they invite everyone they know to join their version of Oktoberfest. Yes: everyone they know.
"It's a party party," Bullard says, "with copious amounts of eating and drinking and everyone invited like when you threw a party in college."
More than 100 people stop by their San Francisco house during the six-hour event, where they find a keg, coolers of soft drinks and more beer, a table laden with potluck offerings of salads and side dishes, a kitchen counter covered with buns and condiments, and a grill full of sausage.
"The party was inspired by my deep appreciation for sausages of all types," Bullard explains. "We've had Georgian sausage, Portuguese, Czech. One year I found a huge coiled Polish sausage that weighed 10 pounds. I'm not sure it was meant to be grilled, but we put it on the grill, and it was a big hit."
Bullard's grilling adventures are not limited to sausage. One year he threw big chunks of salt-encrusted beef on the grill, Brazilian-style. Another year he grilled a whole slab of bacon. But there's always lots of sausage, and there's always plenty of beer. And if anyone goes home hungry, it's not because of any lack of hospitality on Bullard and Wilson's part.
"I usually buy about 100 pounds of sausage," Bullard says, "and it all gets eaten."
The party, now in its eighth year, is a real lesson in entertaining: The kitchen is small, the grill is smaller, and the yard is postage stamp-size. It is also a daunting climb down a steep set of stairs from the kitchen door. The space is not particularly well suited to hosting a huge party ― indoors or out. But the generous spirit with which the gathering is thrown pulls even the most timid into the swing of things. As Bullard keeps the sausage supply steady, Wilson makes sure every guest meets someone new.
"I like having this big party every year and seeing everyone and how much the kids have grown," Wilson says. "Friends bring friends, and they bring their friends. One year someone brought a friend who had just moved here from Wisconsin and thought nobody in California ate meat. She was pretty happy to see all that sausage."
The crowd spreads throughout the house and garden. Since the party usually falls during the pennant race, one group congregates around the television in the bedroom upstairs, watching the baseball game and sending out emissaries for food and drink. Older guests tend to sit in the comparative calm of the living room. But most people meander between the dining room and the yard, carrying food to and from the grill, fetching another beer or more salad, bumping into old Oktoberfest acquaintances, and making new friends.
"One year there were so many people that it took me half an hour to get from the yard back into the house," says friend and longtime Oktoberfest attendee Frances Kaplan. "It's amazing."
Although they like the coziness of having the party at home, Bullard and Wilson have also hosted the event in Golden Gate Park, where Ultimate Frisbee and other field games were part of the fun. The wild play is now limited to the kids ― who scamper through the rose garden, climb the apple trees, and swarm leaping and diving into a front room that Wilson lines with futons and pillows ― but the party has kept its raucous feel.
"The first year we had it in our house, someone called the cops about the noise," Wilson says. "That really pleased James. But now we know our neighbors, so they all get invited too."
To follow Bullard and Wilson's example, simply buy an absurd amount of sausages and beer, send out an email to everyone you know, and hold on for the ride. Or you can cook several of the sausages and/or grill a chicken for a smaller group but in a similar spirit. Any of the following sides or salads ― inspired by dishes their guests bring ― would be a welcome addition to a fall potluck.
Grilled Beer-cooked Sausages
Bullard simmers his sausages in beer first, which makes for quick grilling and helps feed guests fast. We love these smeared with coarse-grain mustard on crusty rolls. The onions take on a lot of the ale's flavor, including its slight bitterness. Leave them off your sausage if you're sensitive to bitter flavors
Caraway seeds, onion, and ale transform the humble condiment of jarred sauerkraut into a stellar side dish. It's good on a bun with a beer-cooked sausage or simply on its own, by the forkful.
These potatoes are rich and savory and particularly delicious when eaten alongside beer-cooked sausages.
This tangy salad adds zip ― and lots of vitamin A ― to any picnic or barbecue.
Any beets would be delicious here, but we prefer the deep color of red beets with the rest of the menu. Roasting the beets before grating intensifies their flavor and is an easy, relatively mess-free way to cook them.
Ginger Chocolate Cookies
Part chewy molasses cookie, part homey chocolate chip cookie, part spicy gingersnap: These cookies ― inspired by ones brought annually by an Oktoberfest guest ― have it all. The Sunset staff ate our test batches as quickly as we could bake them.
2 days before the party
• Make sauerkraut
• Roast beets
Day before the party
• Bake cookies
• Make beet salad
• Make carrot salad
Morning of the party
• Bring carrot salad, beet salad, and sauerkraut to room temperature
• Set out condiments and buns for sausages
• Chill beer or pick up keg
• Lay out plates, utensils, napkins, and glasses; organize serving bowls and platters
2 hours before party
• Make potatoes; keep warm in a low oven
1 hour before party
• Cook sausages through step 1
Once guests arrive
• Grill sausages