Plates filled with tradition

City church serves sour-beef dinners

October 30, 2002|By Sherry Conway Appel | Sherry Conway Appel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The chopping, slicing and boiling have begun in the basement kitchen of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church, as volunteers prepare to serve more than 1,500 people a true Baltimore tradition Sunday and Monday - a sour-beef dinner.

Once served in homes and restaurants throughout the city, sour beef, or sauerbraten, is part of the German heritage that still survives in East Baltimore. But it is such a time-consuming dish to make, families that hanker for this comfort food go to the church dinners like Sacred Heart's in Highlandtown or the few restaurants that keep it on their menus.

"It's a fading Baltimore tradition, but we bring it back every Monday night," says Wendy Ammenheuser, manager of Cafe Hon in Hampden. Ammenheuser's mother made sour beef, and she says she wanted to preserve that heritage in her restaurant. The Cafe Hon version sells out almost every week.

Sour beef has an unusual flavor: The beef is tangy yet vaguely sweet. Cooked until fork-tender, it is served with soft potato dumplings covered in gravy. Fried oysters are optional. Sacred Heart's dinner includes coleslaw, German potato salad and bread and butter, all served family-style. Pieces of pumpkin and apple pie complete the meal, if anyone has any room left.

The Holy Family, the church's organization that puts on the event, also runs a white-elephant sale, games of chance and a Christmas crafts table at the dinner.

Bette Schaum is the director and producer of this show. She gathers the volunteers. She buys and seasons the meat - all 800 pounds of it. She makes five crates of slaw and seasons the potato salad. And, then at the dinners, she plays hostess, helping seat the patrons who wait their turn for a table. Yet in talking about the preparations, Schaum, who admits to coming to Baltimore as a young woman 55 years ago, seems to have the energy to do it all.

"It's a wonderful event. It's like homecoming," Schaum says. "People who lived here and moved away always come back."

But even she admits it's harder to entice new volunteers to prepare the dinner because many parishioners have moved to the suburbs and others are getting too old to work.

Donna Thomas, however, isn't one of them. She grew up across the street from the church, and although she moved to Kingsville with her family six years ago, she has maintained her connection to Sacred Heart and sour beef. She pitches in wherever she can - peeling, slicing, serving the large platters of food.

"My mother used to work at the dinners and now I do," Thomas says. "It feels like home. It's something about the parish that gets into your blood. And I enjoy working with the older people. Working in the kitchen, listening to their stories as we cut and chop. When I first started, they just told us what to do. Now they are telling us how they do things. Maybe they are realizing they have to pass things along."

Schaum has been using the same recipe for years - handed down to her from former Holy Family members. The ingredients include "flats of eye of round and rump roast" from George's National Beef and Provision Co. Inc. on Conkling Street, eight cases of vinegar, 100 pounds of onions, 40-pound sacks of pickling spices and, for the gravy, 50 pounds of gingersnaps. "I start marinating the beef on Monday and Tuesday," Schaum says, "and we begin cooking on Wednesday. We'll have all the burners going, but it takes at least two days to get it all cooked."

The potato dumplings are another matter. Some folks come just for them. Soft and light, they have just the right texture to carry the gravy, which is sweet and dense. The dough is made by another volunteer, Zennie Jachelski. Although a Baptist, she is linked by marriage to Sacred Heart and has been working the sour-beef dinners for 27 years.

"I've been making the dumpling dough for about eight years," Jachelski says. "There was a sweet lady who just couldn't do it anymore. I started out helping her and when she went into a nursing home, I was stuck with it. But I've always had fun. Sometimes we start at 6 a.m. and don't finish until 4 in the afternoon."

Once Jachelski finishes the dough, several more volunteers roll out the dumplings and then cook them in large pots of boiling water right before serving. The secret to the light dumplings, Jachelski says, is simple. A small piece of dried bread is inserted into the middle of each dumpling before it hits the pot. "That way the inside gets cooked at the same time as the outside."

"It's hard work," says Jachelski of the event. "It's fun, too, but, jeepers, it's hard work."

Sour Beef Days, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 3, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 4, the school hall at Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church, corner of Foster and Highland avenues, Baltimore. Adults, $12; children 12 and under, $3. Call 410-342-4336 for information.

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