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Sauerbraten? Please God NOOOO!

The most mentally and spiritually scarring, the most often repeated or retold of all my bad food experiences is a sauerbraten incident from my youth. The events below are true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent

Forty- eight years ago…..

Picture in the theater of your mind, two people, toiling in a kitchen, with stacks of pots and pans, bowls of every size, boxes upon boxes - empty as they were, of ginger snap cookies. These two people are my parents, accomplished cooks and masters of the kitchen, working to create a dish that my dad THOUGHT he knew how to make. It was called - Sauerbraten.

They had been toiling in the kitchen for hours! The only respite they had from the job at hand was when they hopped in the car and sped off in a smoke-inducing, tire-spinning launch from the curb, leaving two streaks of smoking rubber on the pavement and three confused and anxious children behind.

Before I go further into the story,  I need to include a traditional sauerbraten recipe for your review, and for that, I travelled electronically to Germany, the country of the dishes birth for a recipe.

    * 1 cup dry red wine
    * 1 cup red wine vinegar
    * 2 cups cold water
    * 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
    * 1 Tablespoon black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
    * 1 Tablespoon juniper berries, coarsely crushed
    * 2 bay leaves
    * 1 teaspoon salt
    * 2-3 Tablespoons Sauerbraten Spice
    * 4 pounds boneless beef roast, preferably bottom round

    * 3 Tablespoons butter
    * 2 1/2 cups onions, diced
    * 2 1/2 cups carrots, diced
    * 1 1/4 cups celery, diced
    * 2 Tablespoons flour
    * 1/2 cup water
    * 3/4 cup gingersnap cookies, crumbled

Combine all marinade ingredients, except the roast itself, in 2-3 quart saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Place the beef in a deep, non-reactive (glass or ceramic) bowl or pot just large enough to hold it. Pour marinade over beef. The marinade should be at least halfway up the sides of the roast. If necessary add more wine. Cover tightly with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-3 days, turning the meat in the marinade at least twice each day.

Remove meat from marinade and pat completely dry with paper towels. Strain the marinade through a fine sieve and reserve the liquid. Discard spices and onions.

In heavy, 5-quart dutch oven, heat the butter until bubbling stops. Add the meat and brown on all sides, turning frequently, so that it browns evenly without burning. Transfer to platter and set aside.

For roasting, add the onions, carrots, and celery to the same pan you cooked the meat in. Cook over moderate heat until soft and light brown (5-8 minutes). Sprinkle 2 Tablespoons of flour over the vegetables and cook, stirring constantly, 2-3 minutes longer or until the flour begins to color. Pour in 2 cups of the reserved marinade and 1/2 cup of water and bring to boil over high heat. Return the meat to the pot, cover tightly, and simmer over low heat for 2 hours, or until the meat shows no resistance when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife. Alternatively, bake in 350 degree oven for 2 hours.

Transfer the roast to a heated platter and cover with foil to keep warm while sauce is made.

Pour the liquid left in the pot into a large measuring cup and skim fat from surface. You will need at least 2 ½ cups for the sauce. If additional liquid is needed, add some of the reserved marinade.

Combine the liquid and the gingersnap crumbs in a saucepan and cook over moderate heat, stirring frequently for approx. 10 minutes, allowing the cookie crumbs to dissolve completely and thicken the sauce to the desired consistency. Depending upon the amount of liquid, you may need to add additional cookie crumbs.

Strain the sauce through a fine sieve, pressing down hard with wooden spoon to force as much of the vegetables and crumbs through as possible. Return the sauce to the pan, adjust seasoning and allow to simmer over low heat until ready to serve.

Slice the roast, pour some sauce over slices on platter and pass remaining sauce separately.

Helpful Hints

Traditionally, sauerbraten is served with dumplings, boiled potatoes, spaetzle, and red cabbage. This classic, but easy, recipe requires advance planning and time (3 days!), but it has a flavor and aroma that is incredible.

Don't hesitate to adjust the amount of gingersnap cookies to give the sauce your preferred consistency. The flavourful gingersnap cookies are used as the thickener, not flour, so you don't run the risk of having a pasty sauce.

Source The submitted by Alexander Rhoads

Okay, now we have a sauerbraten recipe, one of many available on the internet and if you look at the recipe it seems fairly innocuous, possibly tempting or even palatable, however, palatable was not the outcome when mom and dad took on the challenge that sauerbraten turned out to be.

I’ve asked them many times what could have possibly gone so wrong; so very, very wrong. They always answer, somewhat warily, that they can't recall all of the events, but they do remember that things began to go off the rails early in the attempt and they attribute the wreck to reading the ingredient list wrong.

The ingredient that they messed up was the ginger snaps.  Ginger snaps!  In a beef gravy to thicken and flavour it!!!  Oh my God, that should have been the first clue that this recipe should have been left alone – barren - cast out like a leper from a South Pacific village. Come on!  Ginger snap gravy???!!! My swallower shifted into reverse just typing the recipe, oh my….  Be still my uvula, be still.

In the sample recipe above the amount of ginger snaps required is ¾ of a cup. That’s three quarters, not quite a full cup. Not thirty-four (34) cups.  Now my parents are smart people; intelligent, articulate, well meaning, educated, informed and otherwise great cooks, so it is almost beyond my comprehension to detail the misadventure and suggest they went wrong by missing a forward slash.  ///////!!

We now understand that when they lost the / the recipe went from ¾ cup of ginger snaps to 34 cups of ginger snaps and in doing so they had to compensate by increasing the other ingredients to try to arrive at some semblance of a gravy that did not resemble soggy ginger snap cookies.  So off to the store they went to gather more Oxo cubes, vinegar, sour cream, wine vinegar, vegetables and spices, eye of newt, road apples and wings of bat - they would make more than a few grocery runs that day.

Now, one has to realize they were young, in their late twenties and still honing their culinary skills - but 34 in place of ¾?  Come on.  There had to have been alcohol involved, there just had to be!!! That is the only explanation that holds water - or gravy as it were, and it was the late 60’s so who knows what other impairment to cognitive ability may have been in play other than them - and they ain’t sayin’.

My sisters and I headed towards the kitchen to try to determine the reason for the noise that our parents were making. We then stood at the doorway, staring at our parents as they frantically tried to get a train wreck back on track; failing miserably in the process. We shuddered knowing full well that what we were watching wouldn’t end well. We just knew it.

Dad was working feverishly with mom working just as feverishly alongside him.  Without comment dad left suddenly and 20 minutes later he returned with another truckload of groceries.  They then worked together, frantically, taking time out occasionally to bark at each other, then continued on to create/repair - stirring, pouring and cursing.

The piles of pots and pans grew exponentially and as their creation grew the concern of us children peering on grew exponentially as well. Piles of dishes and bowls alongside countless empty boxes, bags and cans began to grow, reaching skyward, cramping what was already a small space and even then my parents did not falter, did not flinch, did not stop like others less hardy would have done. OH NOOOO, not them! Instead, they moved forward, creating, cooking, complaining, and we children knew the things that were at play in front of us would soon affect our wellbeing.

1 – The dishes would need cleaning, and we were the designated washers and dryers
2 – My parents never threw food out and the amount of food in use was growing ominously
3 – The smells of vinegar, sour cream, ginger snaps, beef stock and sweat were disturbingly off-putting
4 – The pots and pans were bigger than us and I questioned our ability to wash them
5 - My parents never threw food out and it was looking like we had enough of this thing for a lifetime
6 – Baby Sister started to wail, a harbinger of a wreck, she is psychotic after all, or is it psychic?
7 – The creation atop the stove developed an audible heartbeat
8 – My eyes began to water
9 – Baby Sister fainted
10 – Sister 2 began to gag and retch
11 – Mom and dad never threw food out
12 – The heartbeat on the stove began to speak

With me trying to shift my now reversing swallower to neutral, the order was given to set the dinner table - IT was ready.  Thus alerted, we began to move towards the cupboards to gather plates, glasses, knives, forks and other necessary implements to aid in attacking the beast that stirred in the kitchen. The table was set, mom brought the roast, some of the gravy and a few noodles to the table and we all sat down.

“Okay let’s eat!” was the command from our dad.

“Oh Ronnie, should we?” mom replied as she began spooning up some of the offering. I watched as the creation stared at me and I could count the heartbeats as ripples in the gravy; thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump…

“Why are you crying?” dad questioned Baby Sister, sending her into deeper sobs of grief.

“Oh for Christ’s sake, what’s wrong now?” Sobbing, wheezing and gasping was the reply, possibly even a snort and a chortle

 “What’s her problem?” he asked to no one in particular.

Mom answered back loudly, “She’s having the same problem the other ones are having!”

“What problem?”

“The gravy! That’s the problem!” was her exasperated reply.

“What’s wrong with the gravy? There’s nothing wrong with the gravy!”

“What’s wrong with the gravy? It’s terrible and it’s talking to me!!!”

“There’s no problem with it, it tastes just like Fria used to make.” dad insisted unconvincingly.

Mom finished serving up the fetid gloop then placed the plate in front of Baby Sister - a thankfully small sampling of the beef, noodles and gravy. Each of us were facing our doom as we all stared at the gloop-laden plates positioned in front of us, sobbing and choking as we did.

“Eat!” the master commanded. He placed his own forkful of thumping gloop into his mouth then chewed slowly, deliberately. As he chewed I watched him through my fog of tears, then I thought I saw his shoulders heave - a little, almost unnoticeably, but they moved, hunch-like.

“What’s wrong dad? “ I squeaked out as I watched his shoulders heave a little more.

“I have a tickle in my throat!” he said in an almost a choking sound.

“Eat your dinner or it'll be on the table for your breakfast!” He heaved once again.

Baby Sister, the youngest and most easily frightened person at the table, put some noodles that had been accosted by the gravy into her mouth and before the second movement of her jaw, she wretched – loudly, spewing the noodles and ginger snap gravy through her now gaping mouth with some passing through her sinuses before landing on the table.

“What the hell was that?” my dad inquired, sounding both angry and alarmed.

Mom, reaching to control Baby Sister’s masticating faux pas, put her hand over Baby Sister’s mouth and began to wipe with her napkin.  “She coughed up!” mom replied. Yup, the train wreck had arrived right on time.

I watched the horror show through tear clouded eyes, knowing with certainty that my father was going to insist I eat the now moving and whispering mass that lay in front of me. I shuddered and sobbed. Sister 2 was sobbing and retching, then begged for mercy and she hadn’t even tasted it yet!  The train wreck grew larger as more dining cars fell off the rails and unable to be contained it was going to barrel right across our kitchen, killing us all I was sure - all the while dad insisting we have to eat our dinner.

Mom yelled at my dad, “They don’t have to eat it!”

“Why not? It’s perfectly good food!  What’s that thumping noise?”

Sister 2 was putting a small, almost invisible sample into her mouth as mom yelled at dad.  Startled by mom’s outburst she jumped up, as she did she the forkful of thumping gloop fell into her mouth and almost immediately the writhing mass exited her mouth with wall damaging speed, sounding like a loud belch above the roar of a cannonade.  I ducked out of the way, however the speeding mass hit the window behind me, ricocheting back, hitting me in the back of my head.  I grew woozy.

As I was being hit by the sauerbraten missile Sister 2 had launched, Baby Sister cried out, begged actually, “No more mommy, please mommy, no more!!!”

My dad bellowed,” Everyone eat your dinner!”

As I quickly put the fork laden with sauerbraten into my mouth, fearing the outcome and as I did, Sister 2 simultaneously completed the same maneuver and as I watched her struggle I felt an uncontrollable need to hurl with a force previously unknown to me, my swallower had gone into double-overdrive, high-range reverse - there was no turning back. I gagged.

In fear for our lives, each of us fighting our individual battles with our sauerbraten foe, we watched as dad’s shoulders writhed and heaved - he gagged, I sobbed.  Baby Sister continued to heave, gag and retch; Sister 2 was doubled-over, under the table, coughing and gasping for air, mom was crying, dad stoic no longer - heaved. The gravy began to move then demanded a small child be offered to it.

We now had a symphony of sound - crying, retching, coughing, gasping and other assorted bodily noises I am too modest to describe.  Mom was now drinking vodka while holding Baby Sister with the non-vodka-bearing hand, trying to keep her safe from the fetid mass that crawled towards them. Then suddenly the gravy stopped advancing towards mom and Baby Sister, instead, it turned and started to crawl towards me.

Baby Sister was screaming, dad was screaming for everyone to “Shut up, right now and stop crying or I’ll give you something to really cry about!”

I heaved some more, Sister 2 tried to crawl away, Baby Sister screamed ever-louder. The gravy seeing Sister 2 trying to crawl away began to give chase. I screamed “Run! Sister! Run!” She rose to her feet and bolted like a fat kid running from gym class.

Dad finally succumbed to the crying, begging, pleading and other noises emanating from his family and plopped down in his chair, gasping for air, unable to bark another command for us to eat; with that, the din began to quiet, ever so slightly.

Mom quietly whispered, “What do we do now?!” None of us had an answer ready.

I was finally able to pull my swallower from reverse and place it into neutral, Sister 2 had escaped from the thumping blob, Baby Sister sat there throwing utensils at the thumping writhing mass - the blob began demanding a small child or a dog be placed in front of it.

Dad warned all of us, “Everyone be quiet and stay still! Don't move, I think it can sense fear!”

The nose abated and we froze in place, except for the gravy, tired of being ignored it crawled towards my dad. We all sat, unmoving, still as the guest of honour at a wake, gathering our wits and trying to think how we could get away from this mess. The gravy now was wrapped around my dad’s left leg.

It seemed like forever before anyone talked, finally, dad spoke up and as his voice cracked he declared, “Hurry, get your coats and get your mother to the car, we’re going for pizza! Run! Run! Run! NOW!!!!”

He raced towards the front door and as he did he gave his leg a kick and a shimmy to free himself of his captor; the gravy roared, mom gasped, Sister 2 raced ahead to the car door with Baby Sister toddling close behind. We had escaped!

When we returned from the pizza joint some hours later, a disaster cleanup crew was just finishing up and they had the sauerbraten contained in a cage in back of an armoured truck.With a police escort the armoured truck disappeared, heading to somewhere, we knew not where, but away from us and for that we were thankful.

Sauerbraten was never attempted again and that is a very good thing…

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