Where do sticky buns come from?

Though you wouldn’t think it were possible to ascribe sticky buns to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, some food historians in fact do. It’s yet another example of food researchers gone wild, since those cultures had nothing like our brioche doughs, cane sugar and butter. All of them did have yeast-raised dough, however, so it’s not terribly surprising that at one point or another cooks in those locales thought to flatten it into a rectangle, spread a filling out over it and roll it up. Some of them might have had dried fruit in them, some might have had meat or dried fish (a concept Cinnabon tried early on that tanked miserably).

Me, I don’t consider those to be “sticky buns” since they wouldn’t have been “sticky”. Which is to say, no sugary syrup on the outside. Pastries of that description don’t seem to have come on the scene until much later, and then possibly in a region of southwest Germany called the Palatinate where similar rolled-up sweet treats were known as Schnecken. Yet the sticky bun didn’t come into full flower until the people of that region were forced to flee — many to the U.S. — as a result of the Nine Years’ War in 1688, a largely forgotten conflict that occupied nearly all of continental Europe, pitting a belligerent France against, well, pretty much everyone else.

The same thing happened again in 1702, only this time it was the War of Spanish Succession that decimated the Palatinate, sending larger and larger waves of refugees to Philadelphia (many via England). These sweet roll-loving people settled in an area of Philadelphia that came to be known as Germantown, and before long Schnecken were everywhere in that city, topped with whatever was handy: honey, molasses, even maple syrup. To this day Philadelphia is known as the sticky bun capital of the world.

In time of course the German immigrants that brought sticky buns to Philly expanded outward to other parts of Pennsylvania where they became known as the “Pennsylvania Deutsch”, known erroneously today as the “Pennsylvania Dutch”. And while these days sticky buns know no nationality or religious allegiance, many of the biggest, sweetest and richest exemplars can be found wherever you find the Amish.

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