The rotary-dial telephone rings in the kitchen of the old Highlandtown church. The caller inquires when the ladies will be holding their annual sour beef and dumpling supper.
Devotees of sour beef circle on their calendars the days when local churches serve the dish that so tickles a Baltimorean's taste buds. Eaters devour the marinated beef, potato dumplings and the gravy lovingly prepared by dozens of grandmothers.
A church sauerbraten supper is a great attraction for families who have left the old rowhouses for ranchers in Rosedale and Perry Hall, Severna Park and Cockeysville. They all return to those scenes of a marriage, or first Communion, or confirmation for a delicious, stick-to-the-ribs fall dinner and the opportunity to renew old acquaintances.
No self-respecting East Baltimore politician would ever skip the local sour beef fest and miss the chance to palaver with a couple of hundred faithful voters.
"You can smell the aroma out on Conkling Street. It brings them right in," says Zennie Chavis Jachelski, a member of the Ladies of the Holy Family, a group of Highlandtown women who serve the city's largest sour beef dinner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in the 3400 block of Foster Ave. The event is Nov. 1 and 2.
Volunteer cooks at the church say that preparing a sour beef dinner is more physically taxing than all the ham, crab cake and oyster suppers they offer throughout the year. More than 1,000 pounds of beef have to be bathed in a spicy vinegar marinade for several days.
Then 15 50-pound bags of potatoes must be washed, cooked, peeled and riced. The women -- and a few male volunteers -- sit at long work tables under the church kitchen's tin ceiling and peel potatoes. More than 30 people will be involved with getting the dinners on the refectory tables.
Aficionados of sour beef claim the secret of a great supper is the quality of the spherical potato dumplings, which must be fluffy and light, while still retaining a dose of German heaviness. The ladies will not divulge their recipe except to say that the dumplings are made of flour, riced potatoes, eggs, salt and farina.
"Once and a while, we get a backup because we can't hurry the dumplings," says Margaret Dorn Cholewczynski, one of the most respected cooks in the parish, who first became involved with the annual supper many years ago when she was enrolled in parochial school.
"I was a waitress at my first supper," she says. Today, she's one of the chief cooks. Some six generations of her family have been involved with Sacred Heart, a massive stone church, rectory, convent, hall and school that sits atop a high ridge overlooking the harbor and rowhouse rooftops.
"The first time I made dumplings, they fell apart and all I had was potato water," says Marie Whittstadt Pisani, another longtime volunteer, recalling the sad experience that plagues makers of dumplings when they plunge their potato-dough balls into caldrons of boiling water.
If some ingredient hasn't mixed properly, the dumpling goes poof and disintegrates.
Baltimore's sour beef dinners may not be as well known or popular as its oyster roasts or crab feasts, but don't try telling that to a beef-and-dumpling man.
Proper sour beef weather arrives when the air turns chilly and the
nights grow long. The traditional season is late October and November, when three local churches hold their dinners.
People who attend them know that the demand can be very high and that patience is required. The dumplings can only be boiled on demand and served under a cloud of steam.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus dinner is 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 1 and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 2. If you aren't a dedicated fan of sour beef, there's a combination platter -- half sour beef and half fried oysters.
The dinner at Zion Lutheran Church (City Hall Plaza, Lexington and Holliday streets) is 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 28, and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct 29.
This old German church prides itself on its authentic cooking and recipes. The congregation is also proud of its newly restored Adlersaal Hall.
In Locust Point, Christ Evangelical and Reformed Church, at Beason and Decatur streets off Fort Avenue, has its dinner from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 3, and 11:30 a.m until everything is sold Nov. 4.
This church has the smallest of the three congregations so it recruits volunteer cooks from all over the waterfront neighborhood. Baked ham is also available.