It was a ritual on fall evenings when the sunlight disappeared a little earlier than the day before. Sour beef night at one of the four churches scattered around the harbor was an occasion when you skipped lunch and left work early.
As is the case with so many things that Baltimoreans savor, the dinners weren't easy to find. A church door might have a small flier taped to it; if you were lucky, you might be on a mailing list. More likely, you heard it on the street.
Sad to report, this fall three of the congregations that used to make sour beef and dumplings have given up this labor-intensive activity. Sacred Heart of Jesus in Highlandtown, United Evangelical Church at East Avenue and Dillon Street (Canton) and Christ United Church of Christ in Locust Point have all ceased staging these big community dinners. They could not field the people necessary to do all the work.
I'll miss their food, but more than that, I miss the people I used to see at these warm and unpretentious gatherings, where politicians like William Donald Schaefer, Barbara Mikulski, Jack Lapides or George Della stood in long lines along with every other hungry soul.
Our lone survivor is downtown's Zion Lutheran Church, 400 E. Lexington St. at Holliday, where the dinner will be served from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday. (If you are new to the sour beef suppers, plan your trip with this in mind: Supplies can run short.)
The Zion congregation calls its dinner a "sour beef event," an apt description of this custom. As a child, I knew my grandmother was preparing for a sour beef event the minute I got out of bed and could smell the browning flour aroma that drifted up the hall staircase.
I was a lucky Baltimore boy. I had two grandmothers who made sour beef, and each tactfully insisted that the other's was better. Looking back some 50 years, I can say that each was fabulous because there was so much heart and love behind the work that went into it.
The same sentiments hold for the small army of women and men who assemble in crowded church kitchens to make the marinade for the beef. And there is real magic involved with the dumplings. The Zion dumpling is as good any found in Germany or Austria, where I've conducted extensive sampling tours and, on more than one occasion, said, "Not as good as Baltimore's."
Zion also offers a Bavarian-style beer hall in its Adlersaal, a parish house so German you forget you are in the shadow of City Hall. The beer drinking goes on a little later Wednesday night in a setting that combines a church with a little garden, pastor's study and parish hall.
The huge bronze bells atop the hall's tower are the most deeply resonant in the downtown. Their Sunday morning peal and reverberation off neighboring office towers make for a little earthquake for the ears.
Real Baltimore plain food is disappearing as the restaurant chains, culinary institutes and cable television food shows obliterate local customs. As long as the scent of pickling rises from the basement kitchen at Zion, we need not worry.