I must have been about 10 years old when my mother prepared steak with monkey gland sauce for supper. I wouldn’t eat it. The name put me off. Ok. So I learned that this sauce doesn’t involve monkeys or glands. I still wouldn’t eat it.
Nearly fifty years later I still don’t eat monkey gland sauce, but now my refusal to eat it is because it, not only the name, is “yucky”. It is a uniquely South African sauce and it is surely worth a mention in “bizarre foods of the world” lists. Curiously I ran up against it the other day at a restaurant where I simply ordered a “medium rare steak”. It came slathered with the offending sauce.
Its origins are lost, but one legend has it that some French chefs of the early-20th century, working at the exclusive Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg were so disgusted at the stuff that South African ate that they created a mix of chutney, tomato sauce, sugar and garlic and served it with steak. They intended it as a joke, but the joke backfired when the South Africans loved it.
Another legend is that it originated in the Savoy Hotel in London (I am quite sure that they will deny this), when a Russian born, French scientist, Dr Abrahamovitch Serge Voronoff, began grafting monkey testicle tissue onto men’s testicles to help them regain virility. He often stayed at the Savoy and the dish was named in his honour by the maitr d. An Italian waiter, Cavliere Fiorino Luigi Bagatta, working at the Savoy brought the recipe to South Africa in 1935 when he came here to work at the Carlton Hotel. Originally the recipe apparently consisted of French mustard, Worcester sauce, salt and ground black pepper, butter, chopped shallots, chopped parsley and brandy (doesn’t sound so horrible – I would eat this). Certainly the stuff I was given was made of chutney, tomato sauce, sugar and garlic.
Dr Voronoff existed – you can Google him. Irving Berlin composed a song Monkey Doodle-Do, with lyrics “If you’re too old for dancing/Get yourself a monkey gland.” It featured in the Marx Brothers’ film, The Cocoanuts (sic). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEUA7LKf1QE
South Africans ate huge quantities of mixed grills in the mid 20th century, usually topped with fried eggs, and while Bagatta’s sauce went unremarked at the Carlton Hotel, it became hugely popular when he moved to Cape Town in 1946 to work at the Del Monica Restaurant. In 1947 Bagatta was sent to Pretoria to organise the state banquet and the Princess’ Ball in the Johannesburg City Hall for the Royal Visit. In 1974 he was awarded the title “Cavaliere” which is the Italian equivalent of a knighthood for his contributions to the hospitality industry.
Monkey gland sauce on burgers is still tremendously popular in South Africa, so you can wander in to most fast food chains of the South African variety and find it on the menu. Steers even market the sauce in bottles for fans to buy and take home. Not something I enjoy, but an interesting piece of culinary trivia nevertheless.