Every year since Emma Neath was a child, her mom would go out the night before Thanksgiving to Old Town Kern for an informal reunion with longtime friends over a Basque meal and drinks. Finally, on this her 21st year, Emma got to come, too.
There she was Wednesday night with a seat at the bar inside Pyrenees Cafe, sharing stories with her mom and her mom's best friend, finally getting a taste of the tradition some call Thanksgiving Eve and others call the Basque Crawl.
"This is Bakersfield," said Neath, visiting this week from Cal State Northridge, where she is studying. "You meet up with everybody here … right before Thanksgiving, always Old Town Kern."
It's an event as hallowed a tradition as any in Bakersfield: Friends separated by time and geography come together once a year to catch up and remember the good times of old.
For the younger set the idea is often to seek out friends from high school who have gone off to college in some faraway city. Some plan ahead to meet at a specified time, while others make the assumption they'll run into each other at some point during the evening.
The reunion generally lives up to expectations for Patrick Streiff, 25. He was out again Wednesday looking to personally reconnect, not just for one night but to re-establish friendships otherwise lost to time.
"I just come to visit with people I haven't seen in years," he said.
A Bakersfield twist
Variations on the tradition, now decades old, exist to one degree or another in many cities across the country, where it’s known by terms such as “Blackout Wednesday” and “Drinksgiving.” The idea is that people who travel to be with family on Thanksgiving generally don’t have to work the next day, so why not go out for a drink?
Locally, the event has taken on a distinct Bakersfield flavor. Celebrants go out to lunch or dinner in Old Town Kern, either having a meal at Luigi’s or one of the area’s Basque restaurants. Then, those old enough to imbibe continue to hang around that part of town or head downtown to bend the collective elbow.
“Everybody knows the drill on Thanksgiving Eve,” said Trisha Reed-Fike, owner-operator of downtown watering hold Guthrie’s Alley Cat, who described the tradition as bigger than New Year’s Eve, as “huge.” “This is our best night of the year,” she added.
Good for business
The tradition has grown so large that Basque restaurants now have to make special preparations in anticipation of the crowds.
On a typical Wednesday night at Wool Growers Restaurant & Cocktail Lounge on East 19th Street, between 150 and 200 people might stop in for an evening meal, co-owner Christiane Camou said. But on Thanksgiving Eve she planned to serve about 600 dinner guests.
She said things got so busy last year that the bar ran out of wristbands for designating those old enough to have alcohol. At that point staff made a decision to close up for the night.
"We decided about midnight last year that we’d had a good evening and everybody had better maybe just go to the other establishments," Camou said.
Several participants Wednesday at Pyrenees Cafe described the tradition with an abundance of pride, as if it were their Bakersfield birthright.
Andie Crimm, a 21-year-old Bakersfield native, said she has gone on pub crawls near where she now studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. But to her, they lack the culture and heritage she feels at Bakersfield's annual event.
Her friend Hannah Streiff, Patrick's 21-year-old sister, agreed there's something special about Bakersfield's annual tradition. She sees it as part of a trifecta of locally flavored annual social events, including the Basque Picnic and the Super Bowl.
She said her favorite part is simply seeing friends she has lost touch with since high school. Her plan Wednesday night was to fix that.
"I expect to see everybody," she said.