For a host of reasons both politico-historical and culinary, German food has been so assimilated into this country that no one in Baltimore would go to German restaurants if they were still around, which is why almost none of them are. That's meant hard times for some of us; in my family, Thanksgiving without sauerkraut is, to borrow a phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche, "like a day without sauerkraut." If you want to get down in the tangy, doughy, deep brown palette of German food, the place to be is the annual sour beef dinner at Zion Lutheran Church near City Hall. It only happens once a year and there's exactly one option on the menu: a few slices of what's called sour beef and three spherical dumplings with gravy on top, plus cooked red cabbage, green beans, and a roll that comes with one of those little gold foil pats of butter.
This year, Zion Church held a Wednesday dinner, Thursday lunch, and Thursday dinner the week before Halloween. They were all packed. Upstairs in the Adlersaal ("eagle's hall"), you can get in line for a meal and eat with plastic cutlery under the stained glass windows and soaring, carved wooden beams. Downstairs, and somehow for the same exact price, volunteers wearing dirndl skirts will serve you on china. Both rooms have their advantages: the Adlersaal is more festive and it's where the beer is, but the downstairs is quieter and charmingly preserved in 1980—"like my grandma's basement," said City Paper Photo Editor J.M. Giordano, there to take pictures of the event. The carryout door is down there too, and if you're lucky Leslie Trageser, who leads the team of cooks and flies around the dining room, will show you the kitchen.
It all starts a week beforehand with 500 pounds of inside top round.
"We trim it. We marinate it. I rotate it every other day," said Trageser. To become proper sauerbraten the beef has to marinate in plastic buckets for five days in a mixture of vinegar and spices. "Then we cook the meat. Then we cook the gravy. Then we slice the meat. It's many, many days when you're dealing with 500 pounds."
The beef itself won't make you pucker, as anyone who's had it can tell you, thanks in part to the brown gravy. You'll want a ladling that leaves a Montebello-sized reservoir on your plate for sopping purposes. I sighed a deep, German sigh recently when a former chef at Woodberry Kitchen told me that the restaurant's sour beef recipe used crushed up ginger snap cookies to thicken the gravy. How cute, I thought, until Trageser told me they've always done the same thing at Zion. It's one of the best gravies of all time, and I'll say that standing on your grandma's coffee table.
Woodberry could never come close to replicating the hand-formed dumplings, though:
"We literally have a table," Trageser explained. "It's a big ping pong table. We cover it with a tablecloth and we have women sitting around rolling dumplings and they're half talking German and they're half talking English, they're telling stories. We have young ones, we have old ones, we have kids coming out of school that come and do it. We have mothers and daughters. We have grandmothers. We have neighbors. People want to go to that dumpling room, I'm telling you."
And so we made our way back, Trageser and I. It was a bit like that famous long-take in Goodfellas where Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco go through the entire Copacabana to get to their seats, except it was a church basement and very friendly, older German folks greeting us instead of people paid off by the mob.
I am a stranger in all houses of worship, but in the dumpling room I felt very close to God among the flour and the old wooden racks. It was like the little dumplings stood for each of us, molded by hand exactly the same and with care. Each dumpling has a soft breadcrumb, or "crouton," in the middle and no one really seemed to know why, other than "that's how we've always done it." One dumpling maker offered in German-accented English that the point of the breadcrumb was just to be there, or else "something would be missing." Like a body without a soul.
Helga Kimble and her husband of 60 years, James, were volunteering at the dinner as dumpling makers, and as the night wound down Mr. Kimble bused tables in the basement. The two of them are Catholics, Mrs. Kimble said, but "we love it here it because it is more homey." She's originally from Bavaria, where the two of them met while Mr. Kimble was driving trucks for the Army and speaking German with a Louisiana accent. They live in Brooklyn and have been coming to events at Zion Church since 1976.
"And then what I like is the organ music," she continued. "When you listen to the organ you think you be home."
"See, if you go to the churches outside, they play guitars and stuff and it don't sound like church anymore," Mr. Kimble said, with stress on the first syllable of "guitars." He grew up on hot "French food," which doesn't agree with the Bavarian constitution. "She thought they were trying to poison her when she went down."
Mr. Kimble got along well in Germany: "In Germany everybody speak to you. If you go visit somebody you have to have something to eat or drink and if you don't eat or drink they get mad with you. Come to Baltimore you want to eat or drink something you better bring it with you."
In Baltimore's defense, no one ever said we had Southern hospitality here—just Southern racial animus.
Sour beef and dumplings is not just a Baltimore tradition, it's also the best introduction to German food that anyone could ask for. To this day, my father experiences PTSD-like symptoms at the mention of panhaas, an everything-but-the-oink scrapple that made the rounds on his Sunday table growing up in a German-settled nook of Frederick County. (Beware: If scrapple is a problem for you, pray you don't ever meet panhaas in a dark alley. I once saw some being made at Rose Hill Manor, like a vat of pig oatmeal, and I could see a damn hair sticking out of it.) The sour beef dinner is $15 for a beautiful meal in a beautiful church made by beautiful people. And there's beer, so what more do you actually want, short of free Berger cookies and H.L. Mencken's ghost recanting his anti-Semitism over the dumpling table?
Grooving on the oom-pah music in the Adlersaal upstairs, I was disappointed to see even one Make America Great Again hat among the other diners. German-American is one of the most boring types of white person there is—we don't have anything like The Godfather or even Lucky Charms. If being German means something, though, it should at least mean knowing better than to support a demagogue committed to racial penalizing and violence against political adversaries. We're a group that has a long way to go within a group that has a long way to go.
It's going to take time to recover from this election season, but looking down at my dumplings I had no choice but to feel some kind of way about where we'll be as a country by next year's sour beef dinner and what the German philosopher Hegel really did say about how "the owl of Minerva"—meaning wisdom —"only begins her flight with the onset of dusk." I want to believe I'll see you at Zion Church next year, and that sour beef and dumplings will help redeem us in the end.