Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Pleasures of PBS (and a Defense of Monkey Gland Steak)

Not having cable is liberating. It gives me a perfect excuse not to keep up with the Kardashians or any of the other irritating presences hogging up the cultural universe: Sorry, I didn’t see that – I don’t have cable!

Another good thing about not having cable is that when I do feel like zonking out in front of the TV, I am forced to watch PBS, the only over-the-air station in my area that has decent reception and isn’t constantly running pawn-shop ads. It’s kind of like not keeping junk food in the house: if you feel like snacking, you have no choice but to go for the carrot sticks.

But after many hours of virtuous sloth (spacing out in front of a Ken Burns documentary somehow feels righteous and wholesome), I realized with delight that PBS isn’t all carrot sticks. Sometimes, like ripe mangoes or perfect strawberries, it’s so enchanting you forget it’s good for you. Seriously, any American who doesn’t love Big Bird or get into geeking out with the History Detectives really does’t deserve to be alive.

Even more fun than Big Bird’s adventures or the origins of that thing that may or may not have belonged to Benedict Arnold are PBS’s cooking shows. Unlike the glitz-filled drivel on the Food Network, the cooks who have shows on PBS – Ming Tsai, Jacques Pepin, and Lidia Bastianich, among others – actually know how to cook and are passionately curious about the history, origins, and uses of their ingredients. Watching those guys (and girls) at work can give you both a raging appetite and a genuinely improved knowledge of some crucial technique or regional cuisine: Did you know you can avoid getting shell bits in your eggs by cracking the shells against a flat surface such as a counter rather than against the rim of a bowl? Merci, chef Pepin. Try getting useful stuff like THAT from a gaggle of feuding sorority girls on Cupcake Wars.

Best of all for me and my husband Glenn, several of these shows happen to come on just before we normally eat dinner – perfect eye candy to relax to while stirring up a sauce or waiting for something to come out of the oven.

Like every other human institution, however, PBS sometimes screws up. Some of their B-string cooking shows look as though they were lifted from some public-access channel in the middle of nowhere. And even the true culinary stars in their lineup occasionally get things wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, Todd English’s travel and cooking show came on just before dinner and to Glenn’s delight, was to feature the foods of South Africa, where he was born and raised. And Glenn and I couldn’t wait to see the traditional foods he grew up with showcased by a master chef: What would English taste and cook as he explored Glenn’s homeland? The sweet, twisted fritters called koeksisters? Sosaties, skewers of curry-drenched lamb cooked over an open flame? The traditional meat-filled grill called a braai?

The final answer was...none of the above. Todd English’s vision of South African cuisine and Glenn’s couldn’t have been more different. The Zulu goat sacrifice and resulting goat stew that English watched being made were authentically African, but not part of Glenn’s experience as a non-African from Johannesburg. And English’s segment on safari cooking featured a butternut squash and mascarpone cheese casserole -- something Glenn never recalled having on any safari that he’d ever been on.

To be fair, it would have been impossible for English to do justice to the culinary traditions of a country as culturally complex as South Africa in a half-hour show. But the contributions of South Africa’s centuries-old Indian and European populations to its cooking – which include a full battery of eclectic dishes not found anywhere else – seemed conspicuous by their absence.

Why? Maybe English tried some of traditional Euro-Indo-South African dishes and didn’t like them. Or maybe his producers thought scenes filmed in the bush would look better on TV than those filmed in a typical middle-class urban kitchen. Or perhaps typical urban South African fare is neither exotic nor fancy enough to suit the vibe of his show.

However, I have another, less obvious theory. Some of these typical dishes – tasty as they are – have weird names that American audiences might find off-putting. And English and his team probably realized this wouldn’t go over very well during PBS pledge week: Stay tuned! After a few words from our general manager about our latest matching challenge from Gatorland Chevrolet, we’ll return to Todd English as he shows you how to make a traditional South African favorite – Monkey Gland Steak!

If this is the case, maybe I see why English and his handlers made the choices they did. Still, somebody has to explain the wonders of Monkey Gland Steak to the wider world – and it might as well be me. Fear not, this dish is, and always has been, completely monkey- and gland-free.


It’s unclear how Monkey Gland Steak – beef topped with a tangy sauce enlivened with chutney, onions, and tomatoes – got its name. One legend has it that the dish was invented as a joke by a group of French-trained chefs at a snooty Johannesburg restaurant: Bitter that their wealthy but unschooled Afrikaaner and rural English clientele failed to appreciate the subtlety of their classic French sauces, they threw together the dumbest, most un-French mixture of bottled condiments possible and gave it the most ridiculous name they could think of. To their surprise (and perhaps, disappointment), the philistines loved it. Another story claims that an English chef created this dish early in the last century, and it became a favorite of a prominent doctor known for grafting tissues from monkey testicles into human testicles to restore virility. The chef later moved to South Africa and brought the recipe with him – and it soon became a local favorite.

In South African, the sauce is either cooked along with the meat or offered as an optional topping for steaks (it appears on menus at steakhouses alongside BĂ©arnaise sauce and other classic steak accompaniments). To my taste, the brash, tangy flavors of Monkey Gland sauce (it’s a bit like a South African analogue to barbecue sauce) seem wrong for a delicate filet mignon or other special-treat cut. Rather, it seems better suited for the preparation Glenn remembers from his youth: baked slowly with a cheaper, sturdier cut of beef for a hearty family dinner – it’s great served with mashed potatoes.


(Adapted from South African Gourmet Food and Wine: Traditional South African Food and Moreby Myrna Rosen and Leslie Loon)

4 rump, strip, or sirloin steaks
4 tablespoons prepared mustard (or more if needed)
2 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound sliced or roughly chopped fresh mushrooms
½ cup tomato ketchup
½ cup Major Grey chutney (or other sweet mango chutney)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon (or more) hot sauce, or to taste (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spread mustard thinly on both sides of each steak. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat, and brown the steaks briefly on both sides. Remove the browned steaks from the skillet (you may need to brown them in two batches) and place in a heatproof baking dish.

2. Add the chopped onion and the mushrooms to the hot skillet and cook until wilted and slightly browned.

3. Meanwhile, combine the ketchup, chutney, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce and add to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until the sauce comes to a boil.

4. Pour the sauce over the steaks in the baking dish. Cover the dish with foil and bake at 375 degrees until the steaks are tender, about 40 minutes


  1. Felicia, what an interesting dish and I'm definitely telling my kids the name when I make it!

  2. Hi Lucy--I hadn't thought about it but you're right--this is a great dish for kids -- both the flavor and the name would definitely appeal to the grade school set!

  3. Felicia, I am so glad this does not contain actual monkey glands. I was wondering "which glands?"

  4. Linda--I'll eat almost anything, but don't worry--I draw the line at primates (too close to cannibalism). I'm sure with your scientific background, you were thinking of awful glands I can't even imagine!

  5. Love this post. Enjoyed the stories about how it got it's name. My Great Grandfather (not that great actually) made a living grafting goat glands into humans... Funny world

  6. That slab of steak made me really hungry!

  7. Inspired--Wow, I'm not sure I want to know WHY your great-grandfather was doing that!

    Angsarap -- Thanks for coming by! This is a fun dish (and as a friend points out, kid-friendly too if you ever need to feed little ones).