BALTIMORE'S SOUR beef and dumpling season isn't long. It follows the last of the crab feasts and darts in, and out, before the oyster roasts rule the winter.
Most people here are not even aware of the sauerbraten days. Sour-beef eaters constitute a niche market within the niche market of Baltimore specialty dining. Those who crave the dish are passionate about its merits. Those who disdain it think it ought to be condemned. There's a huge batch of people in between who aren't even sure of what the dish is.
It is, of course, a German specialty. The beef is marinated several days in a spicy bath. It takes talent, or a grandmother who divulged her secret, to blend the flour and riced potatoes into the dumplings that traditionally accompany the dish. The brown gravy is the third component.
At a sour-beef dinner, sometimes the dumplings are better than the marinated beef. Sometimes it's the other way around. Some cooks cut the beef into slices. Others serve it in cubed chunks, more in the style, but not the taste, of a beef stew.
If there is a sour beef season, there is also sour-beef weather: cool to lightly cold, and somewhat damp. If these conditions are met, there will be clouds of steaming vapors floating through the kitchen. Sometimes you can even smell the aromatic vinegar and marinade spices -- especially the ginger -- out on the street.
The dish invited talk. I've never been to a sour-beef dinner when someone didn't share an opinion about it. No, it never really tastes the same as that made by grandmother. But I'm so glad to get a platter of it, I drop the comparisons. Beside, how long hTC will some of these Baltimore traditions last?
Since my late mother, grandmothers and two great-aunts are now making their sauerbraten strictly for the angels, I have to depend upon the few cooks I know who turn out good, hefty sour-beef platters. A few restaurants have chefs who can be depended upon, but I wouldn't miss the family-style dinners served by some local churches.
Josie, my youngest sister, who lives near Fort McHenry in Locust Point, pointed me in the right direction.
Her neighbors praised the bazaars and dinners held at what they call the German Church, a lovingly preserved building with a loyal congregation near the former Procter and Gamble. The church is located at 1308 Beason St., and its real name is the Christ United Church of Christ.
After attending my first sour-beef dinner there, I picked up on some of the other aspects of the Baltimore sour-beef network. By going to the German Church, I learned of another dinner at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Highlandtown, a church that is locally known as Sacred Hearts, with the "s" on the end.
I went to a couple of dinners at Sacred Hearts, including one on a very soggy night when it rained so hard the church basement flooded -- but not a soul stopped eating. The Highlandtown dinner must be the largest in the city. You have to take a number and wait until it is called on a loudspeaker before being served.
It was at that Highlandtown sour-beef dinner that a woman seated at a long table (these are communal meals) started speaking to me. She introduced herself as Grace Fader. She was there on a mission from her own church, another time-honored congregation in Southeast Baltimore.
She is a member of the United Evangelical United Church of Christ, which many people refer to as Batz's Church, after its long-time pastor, the Rev. William P. Batz who served the congregation from 1896 to 1926. They say, "I'm off to Batz's," pronounced as Otts, with a B in front of it.
In a few days Miss Grace, as I was soon calling this enthusiastic grandmother, wrote me a fine letter cordially inviting me to her next sour-beef dinner.
What Miss Grace didn't tell me about were some of the other dishes that the all-volunteer crew turns out. In addition to the trio of beef, dumplings and gravy, there is also a fine vinegar cole slaw and some of the best lima beans in tomato sauce I've ever tasted. Both the slaw and the beans are old Batz's secret recipes. As to the beef gravy, Miss Grace says it must be "as smooth as velvet."
Enough said. Pass the gravy please.
Here are some church sour-beef dinners:
United Evangelical United Church of Christ (Canton), East Avenue and Dillon Street; 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 22; 11: 30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 23. The price is $9.
Sacred Heart of Jesus (Highlandtown), Highland and Foster avenues; 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 3, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 4. $9.
The Christ United Church of Christ, 1308 Beason St., Locust Point, off Fort Avenue, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 5 and 11 a.m. until the food is sold out Nov. 6. $8.
Pub Date: 10/20/96