Feeling the Knead

Is St. Paul Irish? Mostly not—there is an embarrassment of Lutherans and Germans—but that doesn’t stop the city from promoting a credible St. Paddy’s Day parade. Since the capitol city pulls off this stunt each March without a hitch, why shouldn’t it also decide, now and again, to become the seat of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire? Denise Kapler sees no reason why not. She has twice transformed the Landmark Center into the summer palace of Emperor Franz Joseph, for an event called the Viennese Ball.

The same skeptic who asks what is Irish about St. Patrick’s Day in St. Paul might be forgiven for wondering what is Viennese about the Viennese Ball. It turns out that St. Patrick’s Day is the wrong model. These Viennese folks are more like Trekkies, “except we’re going back in time, not forward,” Kapler pointed out a couple of days after this year’s ball. Viennese Balls have been popping up all over the country, attracting an itinerant following with a devotion to historical authenticity that can only be found in people pretending to be someone else. “The Viennese Ball has a lot of historical significance. We’ve done a lot of research to find out exactly what we have to do,” said Kapler. The requirements are daunting: rich, heavy foods, a lot of costumes, and speaking in the passive voice. Last year’s ball was a particularly good one. Kapler even snagged a real archduke. Though he holds no actual title in his native Austria (no empire, remember), Emperor Franz Josef’s great-grandson Markus Salvator von Habsburg-Lothringen regains his station on St. Paul soil. He exerts his considerable influence primarily on the dance floor.

Some of the pressure for authenticity rests on the shoulders of another person with identity issues. Giving his name only as “Klecko,” the production manager of St. Agnes Bakery admits his real name might sound Irish. I visited the cavernous bakery the day before the ball to see what he had prepared for the royalty. The most astonishing loaves—yes, bread can be astonishing—were what Klecko called “the visuals,” which would not be eaten. The fifty or so visuals included Polish sourdough wheels of about two feet in diameter called sun breads, with pumpernickel and flax seed in patterns on the top. Several pale loaves of single-time sourdough of about three feet in length were each studded with four rounds of raisin pumpernickel in a row on the top. Four is a lucky number in Austria, explained Klecko, “and there are a lot of superstitions in the bread.”

The bread that would actually wind up on the table was simpler, but the standards of authenticity, Klecko learned, are tougher. Rolling a rack of dinner rolls out of the proofer, he noted the aroma. “Seventy percent of the moisture in this dough is beer,” he said, “To the Germans, that’s like going home.” But at last year’s ball, he noted, the ethnic judges declared the rolls were a half-ounce too big.

Klecko, however, is no stranger to imperial and dynastic pressures in the kitchen. In his twenty-three years of baking (he looks about twenty-five), he has baked wild-rice sourdough for Mikhail Gorbachev and dinner rolls for the New York Yankees. He’s catered for the notoriously choosy Steve Tyler, the wide-mouthed singer of Aerosmith, who Klecko says was once a baker himself. Klecko even developed the humidity-resistant brat buns for the Xcel Center.

While pseudonyms are built on careers like this, Klecko reflected for just a moment about the pitfalls of fame in wholesale baking. “Who wouldn’t want to bake for the New York Yankees? But if you mess up they can have you hung.” Such are the risks of working with ersatz royalty.—Joe Pastoor