As kids, we envision culinary professions quite narrowly through the lens of pristine chef’s whites often paired with an education at a prestigious school sandwiched in the Swiss Alps. While this very well may be the template we're presented on television shows on food channels, we almost forget about the prowess of the chefs staffed at our home kitchens—parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even older siblings.
For monét, some of her fondest memories in the kitchen were shared with her grandmother. Before we could begin, monét stopped us in our tracks to wash our hands; just to foreshadow the messy work we had ahead of ourselves. She recalled how any time spent in the kitchen with her grandmother as a kid, she’d be asked “Did you wash your hands?” and if she hesitated too long, that was her cue to head to the sink.
Although many of us who convened in monét’s kitchen (via Zoom) were dotted in locations across the globe, nuggets of her grandmother’s character interwoven in a recipe passed down generations surely canceled out any form of distance we may've felt. Even as a few of us opted to sit back and periodically jump between the different kitchens represented on any given tiny window on the Zoom call, it was a clear reminder of how immersive it is just be in the presence of someone at work in a kitchen. It's not much of a surprise that even as a non-cooking viewer, I still enjoyed myself watching others cook as opposed to doing it myself. As a kid (and even to this day) I loved sitting on a little stool watching my mum glide across the kitchen, measurements and all internally programmed like muscle memory as I quietly anticipating the final product.
As with any home kitchen, there are the rules that are taken seriously (wash your hands, in general, but especially before digging into your hands into a messy dough mixture) and the others more liberal interpretations (how much butter is too much butter, and other issues of precision in measuring). Those were both in full display as monét encouraged us to put however much feels right as opposed to feeling tied to the ingredient measurements she has laid out beforehand, recalling how her grandmother relied on forks, spoons and her intuition to make the monkey bread. One of the fellow bakers, Tammy, interjected that ratios are far more important than precise measurements when baking; I'd have to agree!
Juggling measurement conversions and discussing different recipes passed on in our own families (from Swedish cardamom cake in Erin's family, to Christmas cake in Alice's family, and Kelly's grandmother's kiefel), we were joined by a special guest, monét's mum Felicia. I'd argue that her calming voice is just what you need when you're understandably a little stressed making a new recipe from scratch as many of us were. Sharing her memories as a seasoned eater rather than the one cooking resonated with me deeply; more so, the way monét and her mum could so vividly recount memories enjoying monkey bread as a family proved that it's more than just the taste, but the process of it being made that sticks with you. Whether you make it all from scratch or grab some pre-made dough at the grocery store to ease the process, the magic that sustains this recipe in their family is not so much in how precise you are in the ingredients, measurements and materials you use—monkey bread has an inherent communal quality that lends itself to fellowship. The act of pulling apart each individual piece prolongs a kitchen table/counter conversation because you can't necessarily cut a slice to be on your way; it then becomes a centerpiece that drives the flow in your conversation as you take turns pulling apart a piece just as you take turns speaking.
With sugar being such a central ingredient of this monkey bread recipe, it really does get you thinking about the historical importance it holds which links to its present-day prominence in Black Southern dishes. 1619: this is the year when Black bodies were brought to the US as enslaved people, and it is also the year when sugarcane was brought to the US in 1619 by the colonists. A monumental work by artist Kara Walker, entitled "A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby" touched on this inextricable connection between Black people and the commercial production of sugar in the US. This video gives an in-depth look at how the installation came to be.
These histories can often feel as though they're solely tied to the African-American experience, yet it speaks more to a glaring lack of linkages we have drawn across communities of the African diaspora. While our experiences are not identical, they do have their similarities. Similarities that can only be recognised in spaces where this open dialogue is encouraged.
You can relive the Monkey Bread event + critical conversation here: