Tasty Tradition, Rare Treat

Sour beef suppers, a fall ritual, are decreasing in number because volunteers are harder to find.


It's not a humid morning, but the sidewalk air outside a Highlandtown church kitchen smells tantalizingly of vinegar, onions and cloves, the active agents of what Baltimoreans think of as their own South Conkling Diet.

Only the toughest church volunteers would lay out the better part of two weeks for this: the transformation of 700 pounds of eye-round beef into the November sour beef and dumplings banquet that lures staggering lines of customers.

An endearing Baltimore tradition? Yes. Also, sadly endangered.

This fall, two city congregations renowned for the excellence of their sour beef excursions dropped out of the competition.

Christ Evangelical and Reformed in Locust Point, and United Evangelical in Canton discontinued their annual sour beef dinners because of what they describe as "insufficient personnel" - not enough workers for the time-consuming, labor-heavy dish that so many Baltimore grandmothers once made.

"It's really like a seven-day dinner," Hope Marston said the other night as she ironed curtains in her Locust Point kitchen and discussed why her women's guild opted out of the running.

"It's real hard," she said. "We've lost some members in the church congregation, and I've had two sisters break their hips. You need people to work every day, for days. You might get someone to say they'll work one night, but that's not enough. But we're going to try again next year, though."

Accompanied by floured potato dumplings and that gingersnap gravy, the troubled meal is the pinnacle of hearty haute cuisine, strictly Baltimore style.

At another locally legendary Baltimore sour beef dinner, held last month at Zion Lutheran Church near City Hall, a crew of volunteer chefs served 700 diners, who found their way through a small entrance off Holliday Street for this autumn ritual.

"The demand is there. It was our biggest crowd in my memory," said Ellen Solomon, who runs the Zion kitchen and inherited the job from her mother, Marta Bert, who served her first dinner in 1940. "We have the help, but it's getting older. Many of the best workers are in their 80s."

Most sane people leave the makings of an old-fashioned sour beef and dumplings dinner to master comfort cook Bette Schaum, 82, the mother of Greg Schaum, a former Dallas Cowboys guard. She's also a pro at a Vulcan range.

She is the woman in charge of the food for the fall feast today and tomorrow at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church on Foster Avenue in Highlandtown. By tradition, it is the largest of the city's sour beef dinners - and for now at least - it seems to be thriving.

"My knees are bad," she said the other morning. That condition, however, was belied by her actions - lifting caldrons full of marinating beef and directing a work crew with the efficiency of a hotel owner.

For $12 today and tomorrow - if supplies hold, and that's always a delicate issue - patrons of the Sacred Hearts (it's always locally referred to in the plural) diners can tuck into three dumplings puddled into the beef chunks, accompanied by coleslaw, potato salad and apple pie, and should anyone need it, a fresh celery stalk.

That's not to mention the pungent gravy that many consider the best part of this feast.

"They always want something extra, too - usually the gravy," said one of the workers, Mary Schmidt.

No one really knows when Baltimore's love affair with the autumn tradition of the church sour beef and dumpling supper began. The origins may be sketchy, but the sober fact is there are not enough cooks around these days.

"I do a little bit of everything around here," said Joe Zinkand, who is retired after four decades at the Bethlehem Steel rolling mill. "I do as told, cook and peel the potatoes, lift, fetch."

He's just the kind of strong and willing worker Bette Schaum needs for the meal that must be made in stages - well before anyone tucks in a paper napkin and starts salivating.

Last week, Schaum searched from Logan Village in Dundalk to Eastpoint for enough bags of gingersnaps, the cookie that gets crumbled into the gravy mix. Then a friend drove across town to J.O. Spices in Arbutus for 40 pounds of pickling mix - a combination of cinnamon, allspice, mustard seed, whole coriander, bay leaf, ginger, mace and cardamom.

The loose spices had to be scooped out and tied into cheesecloth pouches for immersion in the vinegar-and-onion marinade that surrounds enough beef quarters to feed a village.

"Look, you'll never show a profit if you order in all this stuff from one supplier," Schaum said. "You've gotta hit the sales and specials and go after price."

The women and men at Sacred Hearts know how to work hard.

At a long kitchen table facing the Foster Avenue windows, four sets of siblings chop the beef that's been on a multiday trip from a neighborhood butcher (George's on Conkling Street) to the church kitchen, where it has to be placed in the spicy marinade and then cooked.

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