Down in the basement of one of Baltimore’s oldest churches, volunteer Marlies Laue stirred steaming pots of string beans and cabbage while her husband tended to the dumplings. The sides were to play supporting roles to the star of the show: sour beef, which sat in pots, waiting to be spooned out onto plates.
While Laue volunteers to help prepare the meals, she’s not exactly crazy about the tangy entrée. Growing up on a farm in Germany, Laue ate it so frequently that years later, “I’m done with sour beef,” she said. “I like the gravy and the dumplings.”
In the pantheon of polarizing fall flavors, we have pumpkin spice lattes, which inspire cult-like devotion in fans and grimaces in others. There is candy corn, the waxy orange, white and yellow kernels invented in the 1880s that is the whipping boy of Halloween candy for most, yet remains beloved by a nostalgic few. And then there is sour beef, a treasured autumn treat to some and reviled by many.
For decades, the vinegary meat has drawn diners to the main hall of Zion Church of the City of Baltimore and other German churches in the area for an annual fall feast. This weekend, St. John Lutheran Church in Brooklyn will also host its yearly sour beef dinner (though the sour beef adverse can choose roast beef instead).
Germans once formed the largest immigrant group in Baltimore, and for many of their descendants, the dish comes loaded with fond memories. John Shields, owner of Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen, named the eatery after his German grandmother, who “could make a mean sour beef and potato dumplings,” he said in an email. “She only made it once or twice a year (at least for the whole family) and it felt like Thanksgiving every time — that special.”
Shields, who hosted public television’s “Chesapeake Bay Cooking“ and “Coastal Cooking with John Shields,” recalled the ceramic bowl she used to marinate the meat fresh from the local butcher and the potato dumplings she served with it. “I remember walking into her house off Greenmount Avenue when everything was cooking and bubbling, steaming up the kitchen windows, and the aroma was so incredibly comforting and fragrant,” he said. “God, I miss those days.”
Years ago, many residents flocked to Haussner’s, the legendary German restaurant in Highlandtown, for a bite. Today, sour beef can be found on the menu at Aberdeen eatery Prost, and on special at Little Donna’s in Fells Point, evidence that younger generations are continuing to embrace it.
The preparation involves marinating beef in vinegar — sometimes for several days — which is a technique dating back centuries that allows meat to be preserved without refrigeration. “It’s not an easy dish to make. You can’t just take a slab of beef and throw it in the oven,” said Bernard Penner, whose German-born father was the pastor at Zion from 1963 through the 1980s. The church relies on a large team of volunteers to slice and prepare the meat, as well as to hand roll the thousands of dumplings that will be served along with it. A grinder that looks about 100 years old is used to mash up the ginger snaps that give the sour beef a slight sweetness, helping cut the acidity.
“It’s a fairly popular dish in Germany and everybody has their own slightly different recipe,” Penner said. He’s been helping out at the dinners for nearly 50 years, back since “I was in my 20s. Now I’m scratching 70 and I’m still here scraping sour beef off plates,” he said.
While Penner appreciates the church tradition, which also serves as one of Zion’s most important fundraisers of the year, he’s not exactly a fan of the dish. Growing up, “I ate a lot of sour beef and a lot of dumplings. … If you get too much of anything you start to hate it,” he said.
Upstairs in the church’s main hall, couple Becky and Steve Burk of Baltimore finished their sour beef dinners with friend Paul Rensted, who drove up from Southern Maryland for the sold-out, two-day event. Becky recalled how her own German mother used to prepare sour beef at home with spices and a lemon.
“It was bad,” Steve said. The version at Zion, they both agreed, was much better. “Mom’s was a little more sour,” Becky said.