With our sour beef dinners, drama was the gravy Cuisine: Personalities of the cooks were what flavored our evenings.

November 07, 1998|By JACQUES KELLY

MY TWO grandmothers and one great aunt never broke into a skirmish about their rival sour beef dinners. It was more of a polite, unarticulated competition among the three chefs on those damp Baltimore November evenings 30 or so years ago.

Those were the nights when the kitchen windows fogged up as the plump potato dumplings came to a boil and floated to the top of the big round pots. The house reeked of vinegar and sweet spices, sparking your appetite as soon as you opened the front door.

The family scurried around in anticipation of the big sour beef dinner nights. First of all, these nights were announced in advance because the beef had to be marinated for several days in the cold pantry. When the celebrated night arrived, there was a house full of hungry eaters.

Three decades after these November feasts, I can still recall the basic taste of those dinners. But what I really remember is the personalities of the cooks.

My South Baltimore grandmother, Mary Louise Bosse Kelly, lived in the Poultney Street rowhouse where my brother Eddie lives today. She was a widow and had a personality as large as Zone 30. She loved people and spent -- so she said -- a good amount of time in the aisles of the Cross Street Market talking with the butchers about the cut of beef she was going to use in her signature culinary creation.

Along the way, half of South Baltimore and all the congregation of Holy Cross Church learned that Mrs. Kelly was making sour beef. Ever generous, she probably handed out a few Mason jars of leftover meat, gravy and dumplings to her friends.

I think the lesson I learned from this grandmother on those nights was one of kitchen generosity.

Her sister, my great Aunt Agnes Sophia, was also a sour beef cook. She never married and lived an ever-proper life in an immaculate Folsom Street house not too far from Federal Hill Park.

She was a good sport and made fine sour beef. Sometimes she got tense and annoyed when the potato dumplings didn't bob up in the pot properly. Other times she criticized the consistency her own gravy.

While her sour beef may not have been foolproof, she was a superb cookie baker. She turned out some complicated jelly cookies (two light halves, spread in the middle with currant jam) that could have taken a prize at the state fair. She also had patience and packed these delights amid layers of perfectly cut layers of wax paper. No wonder she also was skilled as a dressmaker.

The lesson I learned at Aunt Agnes' Folsom Street house is that when cooking, it's better to relax and not worry about dumplings and gravy. A house full of family and friends takes care of itself.

I lived under the same roof as my other grandmother, Lily Rose Stewart Monaghan, who had a German grandmother herself.

Lily Rose, assisted by her sister, Aunt Cora, was another worthy sour beef chef. The meal was just one more dish she made in a wide repertory. She never fussed over it. If the dumplings misbehaved, she laughed and said she'd do better the next time.

She must have possessed a strong notion of family solidarity, because she occasionally had her sour beef-loving in-laws up to sample her wares. To me, that was an act of courage.

There were nights, in fact, when Lily Rose sat at the same table with Mary Louise and Agnes Sophia. Putting the trio in the same room made for an interesting social dynamic. Their conversation and dialogue, its nuances and bold pronouncements, could be sharp and choice.

But somehow, after the gravy critiques had died down, they all laughed. Then they washed it down with coffee and a slice of homemade cinnamon cake.

On these nights, I learned that the greatest show of drama was not on the stage of the Mechanic. As these dominant personalities verbally went at it, I realized that family theater is the best performance of all.

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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