Everyone is making banana bread. But why? It’s more than a matter of practicality. It’s a psychology. As we enter what looks like yet another global recession, I decided to investigate banana bread’s frugal history.
Enter one Mary Ellis Ames, home economist extraordinaire, eminent member of the Pillsbury Cookery Club, and Director of Pillsbury’s Cooking Service, a subsidiary of Pillsbury Flour Mills, a Minneapolis-based milling company incorporated in the 1930s.
In 1933, Mary Ellis published the first recorded banana bread recipe in her seminal work, The Balanced Cookbook (although other sources indicate that banana bread, in its finished form, appeared as early as 1893 when the Vienna Model Bakery, in a one-liner that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, advertised its new bread made with banana flour). The Vienna Bakery offering came before the advent of refrigeration, an invention that made bananas more ubiquitous in the US in the 20th century and enabled Mary Ellis to introduce fresh bananas into her Depression-era version of the bread. It seems that she observed the very same qualities of the banana that have so endeared it to today’s novice bakers: muted sweetness; rich vegetal texture; potassium powerhouse; familiarity, reliability, ubiquity.
Like us, the humans of the Covid-19 era, Mary Ellis was baking from unprecedented times. The Great Depression of the early 1930s was the deepest economic downturn of the century, plunging millions of households into poverty as crops failed and banks went bankrupt. Unsurprisingly, frugality was the word of the day. People responded to the economic crisis from their kitchens, like Cara Cannucciari, who found a 21st-century audience on YouTube before her death at age 98. Depression-era recipes were usually free of meat and required few ingredients, like the oft-cited Depression Bread, which had just three.
While the devastating widespread poverty brought on by the Great Depression may not be directly comparable to the economic woes of Covid-19, the present moment is nevertheless an historical interlude that is unlike anything most of us have seen in our lifetimes. Such conditions naturally give rise to changes in behavior, values, and priorities. Banana bread might just be the quintessential symbol for these changes.
The tonic of baking banana bread in a pandemic comes from a set of deep-rooted needs:
- Practicality — Banana bread’s universal appeal as a practical staple that’s easy to make, satisfying and long-lasting makes it the perfect loaf of quarantine. There’s no better demonstration of frugality than to use overripe bananas instead of chucking them.
- Predictability — In uncertain times, banana bread is the leavened equivalent of mathematical certainty. It’s virtually flop-proof. Unlike life right now, you always know what you’re going to get.
- Temporal order — We’ve lost our sense of time. The temporal divisions that once existed between commuting, work and home are blurred as the days melt into one another. Bananas give us the routine we crave. They offer us a sign — it’s that time again. Time to peel and mash and create something new from something on the brink of decay. As long as there are bananas in your kitchen, there’ll be a moment in the amorphous week to make this sweet, comforting bread and share it — virtually — with everyone you know.
- Connection — With everyone else making it and posting the warm, butter-smeared results on social media, banana bread has become a way of connecting with one other. A universal sign of solidarity. It’s the distant ‘hello’ from our respective quarantines, the acknowledgment of shared coping, and collective comfort eating.
- Renewal — The banana, with its bright yellow disposition, quickly turns, becoming an eyesore in your fruit bowl overnight. But all is not lost for the overripe banana, whose life cycle has come to represent the ebb and flow of quarantine life for me. Banana bread is a resistance against ephemerality, the transitory nature of things. It buys us a little more time to experience the simple, sweet pleasure of the ever-reliable banana.
Banana bread has seen a well-deserved surge in middle-class appreciation over the past few months. For the loaf that embodies the same virtues that saw our fore-bearers through their plights, there‘s never been a better time for the humble b-bread to bask in its newfangled glory.