What the heck is “an English Monkey on Bean and Nut Loaf,” you ask. The answer is more convoluted, and debatable, than you may realize. But in short, the “English Monkey” part of this dish apparently dates back to someone in Wales, some time in the 18th or 19th century, who had thin skin and a witty way with words, and who had come to the conclusion that the name of a dish loved by the English, called Welsh Rabbit, was a slur against the Welsh. Whether it is, in fact, an insult is questionable. But by at least some accounts, Welsh Rabbit, a cheese spread that contains no rabbit or any trace of any kind of meat, was indeed named to poke fun at the inhabitants of Wales, who were presumed to be either too poor to afford meat or too drunk to shoot straight, and thus were resigned to eating cheese while pretending that it was meat.
Shooting a barb back at the English – this theory about the origin of the recipe goes – the Welsh inventor of a variation of Welsh Rabbit named his or her dish An English Monkey.
Which begs the question, what is Welsh Rabbit? It is, to begin with, definitely not supposed to be called “Welsh Rarebit.” On that point, the leading authorities on culinary history and English usage seem to agree. No less an eminence than H. W. Fowler, writing in the 1926 edition of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, bluntly asserted, “Welsh Rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong.” In his Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911, Ambrose Bierce, the satirist and chronicler of California in the decades after the Gold Rush, also scoffed at the “humorless” souls who insisted on calling Welsh Rabbit “Rarebit.”
Efforts to set the record straight notwithstanding, it is usually called “rarebit” anyway by most contemporary cookbook authors, including my favorite, Mark Bittman, of the New York Times. (His recipe for “Welsh Rarebit,” which he called “one of the best late-night snacks I know,” can be found here.) Whatever it is named, rabbit or rarebit, it is a thick, melted cheese sauce made with cheddar or another English cheese, ale or dark beer, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and sometimes cayenne or paprika, thickened with flour and butter, and sometimes thinned with cream. It is, in short, a beery English take on the fondues that the Swiss make with their own Swiss cheese and wine.
Which brings us around, at last, to the answer: An English Monkey is a variation on Welsh Rabbit, made without ale or beer. The sauce in which the cheese is melted is instead made with bread crumbs, milk and eggs. There are a number of other variations, each with an amusing name of its own: an Irish Rabbit, Scotch Rabbit, Blushing Bunny (colored with tomato soup), Scotch Woodcock, and more. But I digress.
Recipes for An English Monkey and Welsh Rabbit appeared side by side in some old American cookbooks, such as the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book of 1896, as if to show that here in the colonies, we had gotten over the petty tribal rivalries from the Old Country that may have given birth to An English Monkey in the first place. But there was no place for rarebit in the first California cookbook that included a recipe for the venerable cheese sauce from the British Isles. That book, Practical Vegetarian Cookery, was published by the Theosophical Society in San Francisco in 1896, and the Theosophists believed that you should strike alcohol, as well as meat, from your diet to ensure that your soul will ascend as quickly as possible in the afterlife.
An English Monkey and Welsh Rarebit are both traditionally served on crackers or toast. But I found, in another chapter in Vintage California Cuisine, what in my opinion is an even better vehicle for An English Monkey than bread: Bean and Nut Loaf. That recipe comes from another early California vegetarian cookbook, Vegetarian Cook Book: Substitutes for Flesh Foods, published in 1910. With such a large quotient of bread crumbs in the cheese sauce, it would be redundant, don’t you think, to serve it on bread. The Bean and Nut Loaf proved to be firm enough that it could be easily sliced, like bread (though too crumbly to pick up).
The results? Not very photogenic, to be sure. In the top photo, the English Monkey looks like a sickly yellow giant slug that has slithered up onto the plate and is attempting to devour the nut loaf. I only regret that it didn’t occur to me to stick some slices of the loaf topped with the monkey under a broiler. As for the delectability of the concoction, the English Monkey was pleasantly cheesy. But with all those bread crumbs, it was too pasty to win a place in my regular repertoire. For those not too concerned about their prospects in the afterlife, I’d recommend Bittman’s Rarebit – er, Rabbit – instead. The Bean and Nut Loaf, on the other hand, was by the account of all of those who sampled it, including my two vegetarian daughters, a keeper.
Here, then, are the recipes:
An English Monkey
Soak one cupful of bread crumbs in one cupful of milk about 10 or 15 minutes. Melt one tablespoon of butter, add one cupful of cheese broken into small pieces; Stir until melted, add the crumbs and one beaten egg, one half teaspoon of salt, a few grains of bicarbonate of soda as large as a pea. Cook for five minutes. Serve on wafers.
Source: Practical Vegetarian Cookery (1897)
Bean and Nut Loaf
white beans, 1 cup
onion, ¼ cup
bread crumbs, toasted, or granola
walnuts, chopped, 1 cup
Thoroughly wash the beans and soak overnight. Boil thoroughly and when done rub through a colander. Add the chopped walnuts, eggs, onion braised in olive oil, sage and salt to taste. Thicken with granola or toasted bread crumbs. Put into an oiled pan and bake. Serve with gravy.
Source: Vegetarian Cook Book:
Substitutes for Flesh Foods (1910)