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A real-live fairy kale

Genesee Country Village & Museum’s spin on Germany’s annual “Cabbage Walk” offers a break from winter’s monotony — and brings a little fairy tale magic to Upstate New York.

Every year I vow to get out more in the winter; it doesn’t usually end up going that way.

But for someone who aspires to fight the winter blues, Kohlfahrt is a perfect Saturday afternoon. As I park at the Genesee Country Village & Museum, the sun shines, snow sparkles, and the homey smell of hot food leads me toward the main lodge. Inside the hearth-heated cabin, the otherwise dead winter day roars alive as I’m flooded with beer and wine samples, “hello!”s from friendly staff, and—peculiarly—a three-inch-tall plastic beer stein to wear on a string around my neck.

A timeless northern German custom, “Kohlfahrt” means “cabbage walk”—more specifically, kale.  “In that region of Germany, kale is sort of bitter until the first frost,” says Jennifer Haines of GCVM, “which brings out its flavor and farmers finally harvest it.” Haines, my Kohlfahrt guide and the museum’s director of educational programs, tells me the tradition started with nineteenth-century businessmen who wanted to get out of the city to combat winter doldrums. “A vigorous walk in the country and some good food were exactly what they needed.” As it grew in popularity, the tradition evolved to include drinking and games along the way. Nowadays, Kohlfahrt typically means a group of friends who bring silly games into the forest and make good use of Germany’s lack of open container laws. “The walk usually culminates in the arrival at a pub for a big meal—with kale, of course—where somebody at the end of the night is crowned king of queen of kale,” Haines says. The winner is usually decided by a weigh-in that reveals who ate the most.

Once it’s our turn to fahrt, Haines—who wears a bright green jacket, leafy knit Kale cap, and a perpetual smile—asks if our group has Kohlfahrted in the past. Half of the rosy-faced parents and local business owners around me raise their mittened hands, and, after a brief lecture on the history of the tradition, we’re off—our booze wagon in tow.

After a short jaunt to the museum’s beautiful historic village, we stop for our first game—an icebreaker. After my share of team-building events, I’m ready for things to get awkward. We top off with a local Scotch Ale and gather round for a good-ol’ game of “Hi, my name is ____ and an interesting fact about me is_____.” But before we start, Haines pulls out a baggie of paper slips and informs us we’ll draw our prewritten personal facts at random. As Chris (a grower, not a show-er) and Laurie (“I need help”) introduce themselves, then the rest of the group with their bizarre and NSFW personal facts, I watch the ten unfamiliar faces around me soften, laugh, and begin to treat each other like old friends.

As the afternoon continues, our group treks on from one station to another where Haines leads us through wacky and progressively more risque group games. The museum drew inspiration for this model from Museum Hack, a third-party organization that helps museums develop more fun and hands-on exhibits. “We tried a little of that in our Kohlfahrt blueprint,” Haines says. “We loved the idea of taking twelve or fourteen strangers and have them bond along the way.” Oh, and the aforementioned increasingly risque games are by design, too. “As we go along the way, the activities become a little less … non-threatening,” Haines laughs. “And suddenly you don’t mind hopping along the snow with a plunger between your legs as you try to spear a roll of toilet paper between someone else’s legs! That’s not something we would do right away, but halfway along the tour people are usually relaxed a lot.”

Ironically, the awkward twists make these team-building tropes a whole lot less awkward. And since we each keep scores for the points awarded to us, a friendly competition reinforces the jovial camaraderie. The Hogwarts-style system for issuing points rewards anything from winning games to helping a teammate who slipped on ice. Other activities include tying hot dogs around our waists and lowering them into empty beer growlers; taking turns throwing a ball, then running to it; and cooking traditional German dough over a campfire. With each game, our bierstein necklaces are refilled with delicious local beers, wines, and ciders—some of which are the museum’s very own recipes. It’s hard to discern whether I’m more under the influence of craft beer or the pure sense of community as I dance to German polka like no one is watching (though I’m certain everyone is—it’s for points, after all).

Finally, the sun sets, and we return to the toasty lodge for our feast. “All the food is made by our staff at the museum,” says Haines and explains that there are two departments that have a hand in it. “We have a wonderful food service department, which is responsible for day-to-day concessions and catering,” she explains. The other department, “Foodways,” specializes in recreating historical recipes—in this case, particularly sauerkraut and pumpernickel bread. As we devour our king-worthy feast in a race to sober up before driving home, points are compiled, and the winner is crowned. “In Germany,” Haines explains, “the winner usually gets a pig jaw or something like that.” The museum opted for a plastic crown.

As I warm my hands by the fireplace one last time before heading to my car, the early-evening darkness reminds me winter isn’t over yet. With spring months away, mid-February can begin to feel like the icy rain and slush will never end. But a day full of exercise, nature, games, and laughs puts things in perspective; I feel better than I have since Christmas. The Genesee Country Village & Museum helped remind me not to take my days too seriously—after all, the kale is only this sweet once a year.  

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John Ernst is a writer, graphic designer, and newfound Kohlfahrter based in Rochester.

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