All I wanted was the answer to one simple question. I thought it was going to be “This is another product of food corporations hiring Home Economics majors to make up recipes and dates to 1954”. Ah, that might have been possible in the LAST century. But now we have those Interwebs.
By the way, I have not double-checked the story offered by an expert I knew, who said there was definite proof linking the money given to schools with Home Economics as a subject by food companies, and the use of those companies of the graduates of said programs. “Here’s what we make,” the company would tell its grateful new employee, “Make up recipes so that every housewife in America needs it.” She derived all salads which start with Jell-O and all casseroles involving the opening of a can of soup to this phenomenon. I just accept that with the faith of all of those who attended any kind of potluck dinner during the twentieth century.
So, as I was breaking off bits of monkey bread, and someone said “Why ‘monkey bread’? Who came up with that?”, I simply assumed it was all a plot by Pillsbury to get people to buy more tubes of biscuits (which I, as an unashamed child of the past century, consider one of America’s perfect foods. I have always regarded biscuits which do not come out of tubes with suspicion.)
According to the Interwebs, however, it is not so. They all agree Pillsbury does not come into the Monkey Bread question until the 1970s, by which time Monkey Bread had appeared in any number of cookbooks. One must go back farther than that.
What is wonderful about the Interwebs is that I was able to find seven totally different origin stories. This is actually refreshing: not everybody had stolen their data from the same source, but had done some original digging. Of course, we had to consider the history of bread, and the fanciful ways in which people used bread dough. Monkey bread, it is clzimed on one or two of these sites, was not even possible until the nineteenth century, when people started making bread in pans. (Can’t make Monkey Bread without a pan, see, and up to this point, most people made bread with a heavy dough that could simply be plunked down on any flat surface near a heat source to cook. Some bread, I was told, was actually cooked on the side wall of the fireplace. How did you tell when it was done? It fell off into the fire?)
Anyway, at SOME point, somebody in the Middle East came up with the idea of dipping small lumps of bread dough in fat and then piling them together, so they would cook but not merge, and each bit could be pulled off separately. The recipe moved north, and butter became the standard fat for this. This led to a Golden Dumpling bread, brought to the western hemisphere by Hungarian immigrants, who in time developed it into a street food.
So who added the cinnamon? Early monkey bread was plain buttery bread for dipping into jelly or gravy or anything else handy. One Interwebs food maven gives the credit to frozen bread dough makers in the Fifties while another pins the addition to comedian (and serious chef) Zasu Pitts, who may also have originated the idea of making it in a Bundt or Angel Food pan, leaving the middle open. Nancy Reagan gets the credit for really spreading the culture, after she discovered it in the 1970s, and started serving it every Christmas, at the ranch, the Governor’s mansion, or the White House.
Then how about the name? It’s popular, but not the unanimous choice: you can get the same thing with Hungarian coffee cake (remind me some day to talk about the history of coffee cake and tea biscuits), Sticky Bread, Plucking Bread, Pull-Apart Loaf, Bubble Bread, Pinch Me Cake, and on and on. (given its addictive nature, you COULD just call it And On And On.) Theories vary. Nancy said to make it you had to monkey around with the pieces of dough. Zasu said the recipe was perfect for quieting small children (those little monkeys.) A popular theory is that it comes from a monkey’s habit of studying something by pulling it apart. (Reference the scene of King Kong pulling Fay Wray’s dress off, occasionally censored for sensitive TV viewers.) Monkeys huddling together for warmth, monkey hands, and, yeah, somebody out there does have a recipe called Monkey Brains. (Calvin and Hobbes readers know better.)
Now, about the history of coffee cake, which always implied the presence of sugar, and suggests that the Hungarian Coffee Cake recipe might have started the whole brown sugar and cinnamon mix…hey, just remembered this is NOT a food blog. Anyway, there’s leftover Monkey bread, so I have things to do.