The nights come on earlier. The furnace clicks on. On a humid afternoon, the deep, resonant bell at City Hall sounds the time. It's sour beef's high hour in Baltimore.
In the next week, the aged beef from Hickory Chance Farm in Bel Air will be delivered to Zion Lutheran Church in City Hall Plaza, Lexington and Holliday streets in downtown Baltimore. An army of Zion kitchen volunteers will then begin their labors, days at a time. There's the trimming the beef, the marinating, the tubs of flour and riced potatoes. It's the pickling spices and the vinegar, the red cabbage and the green beans. Then the lines form at the door, Oct. 26-27, for the annual sour beef dinner.
In Canton, at Dillon Street and East Avenue, there's a similar event, from noon to 5 p.m. Oct. 23. This is a Sunday afternoon Oktoberfest staged by members of the United Evangelical Church. It's another merry experience.
I've been to both congregational dinners and savor the experience of seeing so many faces of people whose identities remain a mystery to me. These are Baltimore faces, happy eaters accompanied by exhausted volunteer cooks and wait staff. William Donald Schaefer ate his sour beef. Sen. Barbara Mikulski knows a good thing, too.
Let's put it this way: My idea of answered prayers is a font of marinated beef, properly spiced and swimming in that heaven-sent sweet-sour gravy. Add to it the essential dumplings. The light fare of the summer is past, and it's time to tuck into something robust, a preview of the coming Thanksgiving.
This is not a dish of 30-minute preparation time. The beef spends three days souring in a vinegar-based marinade. And if it doesn't come off just right, picky Baltimore diners will say something like, "Well, it's not as good as last year's" or "Yours doesn't live up to my mother's." They have no shame. And by the way, there is no sour beef as good as grandmother's, unless she is still living and at work in the kitchen. In the meantime, we should be thankful for the work of these two churches.
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.
My mother was not a born cook, but she tried with grand enthusiasm. One year she skipped the beef altogether and used venison. We called it sour deer. It was delicious.
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 tasty vichyssoise.
I'll also say this: Some years I go easy on the beef or the dumplings and just have the gravy over the green beans and ask for a double on the red cabbage. I've been know to frequent Zion's in-house bar hosted by Hampden's Wine Source.
Zion Church's event will take place over two days: Wednesday, Oct. 26, and Thursday, Oct. 27. The dining room will be open from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday. The Beer Hall in Zion's marvelous hall, the Adlersaal, will be open both days from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., with dinner served until 8 p.m. on both evenings. Dinner is $14. I hope the supplies hold out.