Memories, beef and beer at 105th German festival


Elli Hein scooped a small pot's worth of brown beef gravy out of a paint bucket and poured it over slices of beef simmering in a nearly full crockpot.

She repeated the process yesterday afternoon until the huge oval crockpot, which spanned the width of a banquet table, was full of layer after layer of sauerbraten - sour beef - a crowd favorite at this weekend's 105th annual German Festival in Southwest Baltimore's Carroll Park.

Hein is "kitchen chairwoman" of the Baltimore Kickers Club, a 45-year-old German soccer and social group.

In that role, cooking for a mass of people, a pot is a tablespoon and the gravy dish is a paint bucket. She began marinating the beef for the weekend festival 12 days ago, enough time for Hein and her 10-person team to make 1,400 potato dumplings.

"I used to be a cook at the officers club on an Army base in upstate New York," said Hein, 69, of Reisterstown. "The officers would come back from Germany and say, 'Can you fix this? Can you fix that?' That's where I got my training."

"Elli's Sauerbraten" has been offered at the city's oldest ethnic festival for only two years, but her food has already earned her a reputation. Robert E. "Bob" Gibson Sr., the festival's organizer and the first without a German surname to hold the post, recommended it.

Hein was raised on Sylt Island in northern Germany, immigrated to the United States in 1957 and arrived in Baltimore within the last decade. She is a recent immigrant compared with the thousands of Germans who arrived at Locust Point, Baltimore's version of Ellis Island, in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Today, their descendants struggle to pass down their heritage and keep the festival strong.

Dutch Niemann, 81, sat with his wife under the tent covering the outdoor beer hall, raised his plastic cup filled with the popular Warsteiner brew and chanted with the musicians and crowd of several hundred, "Eins, zwei, drei - saufe!" ("One, two, three - drink up!")

The Baltimore County couple first met at Zion Lutheran Church on City Hall Plaza, which continues to offer a morning service in German. They have attended the festival for more than 70 years and expressed disappointment that their three children and six grandchildren weren't there with them.

In their youths, Dutch and Betty, 74, would enjoy the carnival rides, which are no longer offered at the festival, while their parents would socialize. But Betty Niemann said that her daughter is wrapped up in her own daughter's weekend soccer commitments, and that her sons always have "excuses."

But she hopes that their interest in German culture will grow as they age. She said that one of her sons was pleased to receive as a Christmas gift a photo of his great-great-grandfather serving in the Meissen, Germany, volunteer fire department.

"It's very hard to get young people interested," Dutch Niemann said. "Germans are stubborn, but unless we interest younger people, we're going to have a tough time."

Michael Kirchner's grandfather was a founding member of the Deutsches Haus, a clubhouse for Baltimore's German community before World War II. During his college days, Kirchner said, he "got away" from his family's dancing and singing traditions.

But in 1974, he attended a meeting of GTV Immergruen, a German dance club in Baltimore. GTV is an acronym for, in English, "mountain costume club," and immergruen means "forever green." Kirchner, of Maryland's Hanover, brought his sister, Arlene Klair, with him to be his dance partner then.

"I was looking for some stability," said Kirchner, who met his wife through the club and now helps organize the German Festival. "I was looking for my roots, for something else to do on weekends besides party at bars and nightclubs. It helped that the club has a long tradition of practicing on Friday nights."

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