November is sour beef and dumplings month in Baltimore.
It's the time when more people go to church to eat than to pray. No wonder. My idea of answered prayers is a font of marinaded beef, properly spiced and swimming in that heaven-sent sweet-sour gravy. Add to it the necessary dumplings and you are ready for a fierce winter and a size larger pair of pants.
The uninitiated think us sour beef gorgers are nuts. That's fine; let them savor their pasta salad with a side serving of raspberry sauce.
I was beginning to worry that the sour beef dinner might be going the way of Memorial Stadium. It's not fancy food, but good, hearty stuff the pretentious chefs of the world will not acknowledge. I doubt that sour beef will ever be served in a sky box.
Sour beef making is something you learn from your ancestors. And it's a lot of work -- three days' advance preparation to get the beef souring in a vinegar-based marinade. And, if it doesn't come off just right, people will openly blurt out, "Well, it's not as good as last year's" or "Yours doesn't live up to my mother's." There is no shame here.
But judging from my recent informal beef tasting, the time-honored custom is prospering nicely. The other day at the Christ Evangelical and Reformed Church in Locust Point, not far from Fort McHenry, I was served a deep bowl of beef and gravy, three dumplings, another large bowl of cole slaw and one more of green beans for $7. I ate everything and had room for a piece of something called Federal Hill cake.
The old church basement was filled with fellow hearty eaters many of whose grandparents probably got their first taste of America a few blocks away at the immigration pier operated by the North German Lloyd Steamship Co.
I asked to see the church kitchen, not much larger than one in a home, and found it stuffed with red-cheeked volunteer workers. There was frenetic activity around the boiling caldrons as the ladies and men dropped the perfectly shaped dumpling spheres into the water. In fact, there were so many burners going that some women who live nearby had to -- across Decautur Street and fire up their own stoves to boil, then slice, more potatoes.
When it was time to leave, I opened the front door to see Sen. Barbara Mikulski entering. She was not campaigning, not arguing the budget mess but there in search of a delicious dinner. She did allow that there were some pretty fair sour beef feasts served on the other side of the harbor, in her home base of Highlandtown.
During the course of this meal, a woman came up and commented that she preferred her sour beef served as chunks of beef, similar to a pot roast. The church's custom was to slice the beef, more like a slice of roast beef. This comment immediately set off a sour beef discourse, the kind of talk that invariably accompanies this meal.
Every pot of beef, spices and vinegars bears the stamp of an individual cook. One of my grandmothers made hers with a thick gravy; the other made hers with thin. One made potato dumplings; another used more flour. One year my mother skipped the beef altogether and used venison. We called it sour deer. It wasn't bad.
On another occasion, my mother's pot of dumplings completely disintegrated in the hot water. It looked like boiling white glue. But she was unperturbed, salvaged the meltdown and the next day produced delicious vichyssoise.
Once I decided to go for the ultimate sour beef experience and ordered it in Munich, in one of the great old beer halls. It was terrible and shattered my image of German cooking temporarily.
I have heard all sorts of beef hair splitting. There are those who say the spices used to flavor the beef should be stuffed in a tea ball. Others think they should be allowed to freely float in the marinade, then strained out in cheese cloth. It all sounds more complicated than the wiring in a computer micro chip.
Let me divulge a little secret. A sour beef fancier with many years service in church basements has tasted them all, from Wilkens Avenue to Dundalk. His comment, sure to raise eyebrows in the German-American circles was, "The Polish make the best."