A search for an authentic neighborhood sour beef church dinner drew me to a street I'd never visited. My destination was the corner of Washburn Avenue and Third Street in Brooklyn.
There I found St. John's Lutheran Church, a stone building with a short tower that looks much the part of a 1920s neighborhood church on the corner. I soon felt this to be a high-energy place, a congregation up to the task of staging a sour beef supper. The church has an active school with 90 children. Volunteers seemed to be busy with one project or another the day I stopped by.
"I'm high on Brooklyn and I recognize its challenges," said the congregation's pastor, the Rev. Neil O'Farrell. "But I see it as a wonderful neighborhood that is still affordable. And if you buy a starter home, you can move up and not leave the neighborhood."
He also described Brooklyn as "the neighborhood that Baltimore forgot." When he mentions the neighborhood, people often say, "Where is that?" He gives the short version: "Brooklyn is below the harbor." It's also a neighborhood that has a border with Anne Arundel County.
He endures those who may be geographically challenged and quickly describes his "extraordinary congregation."
He talks of his "old settler families" who keep the church building well preserved and open their hearts to the neighborhood. When I asked about membership in the congregation, he said, "Our numbers are going down, but in fact we are not contracting."
He explained how this happens: "We have become the community center for Brooklyn."
As to the sour beef dinner, the pastor tells the truth: "Cooking sour beef for the multitudes is a lot of heavy lifting." It is also a fundraiser that supports the congregation's operating budget.
O'Farrell says the dinner and its required caldrons of beef and gravy require strong arms and backs. The annual dinner draws in the men of the congregation, who do much of this work. It also attracts an anonymous group of zealous sour beef searchers. "They do the circuit," the pastor said of the diners who hear about these increasingly rare church suppers and seek them out. These are the folks who can find Brooklyn on their own.
But there would no sour beef without a recipe, the recipe, one handed down in a family.
"Our sour beef chemist is Doris Burkman," he said.
I located this culinary chemist at her home in Glen Burnie Park.
"The recipe came from my mother, and she would not give it away. But as a girl of about 10 or 12, I stood in her kitchen in Westport and watched," Burkman said. "But now I give out the recipe, especially to the church, because they can make money from it."
Her formula involves ginger snaps, vinegar and pickling spices. She recently made it for her family — to celebrate her 90th birthday.
But as every sour beef eater knows, the dish depends upon who is in the kitchen.
"They may be using the same recipe, but no two cooks are alike," she told me.
This congregation doesn't seem to mind the work. In addition to the annual sour beef banquet, there is also a weekly Thursday morning lunch served at no charge. As many as 90 people arrive at the church doors for the free meal provided through the congregation's labor and generosity.
The St. John sour beef dinner is 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 12. The $14 price includes sour beef or roast beef, potato dumplings or mashed potatoes, green beans with tomatoes, baked apples, bread and a nonalcoholic beverage. The church is at 226 Washburn Ave., Brooklyn.
Another Lutheran congregation, Zion Church, 400 E. Lexington St. at City Hall Plaza, has its sour beef dinner Oct. 23-24. Diners are served from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 23, and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24. A Bavarian-style beer hall will also be available from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. both days.