In honor of Eleanor Cuddeback Hosking, who passed away on June 9, I’m posting an article I wrote a few years ago, which was originally published (in edited form) on www.thegildedfork.com. I will miss your banana bread, Grandma, but not as much as I will miss you.
Grandma’s Banana Bread
Comfort foods. They evoke images of childhood, of family dinners where there were more arguments than peas, and of Sunday afternoons sitting at Grandma’s kitchen table. As I think of my two favorite comfort foods – pancakes and banana bread – Grandma’s kitchen is the place that instantly appears in my mind’s eye.
It’s still the same farmhouse kitchen, if not a little more worn, since Grandma and Papa are getting older and less inclined to fix up the place. The table is just a little too big for the cramped space, with countertops flanking the table on the other two sides, leaving barely enough room to pull out a chair or open the oven. The chairs aren’t all original to the set, but it’s still the same table they’ve always had.
That kitchen, has seen hundreds of people come and go over the years. Neighbors stopping by for a quick cup of coffee and an update on the latest gossip. Fellow farmers dropping in to see about borrowing some equipment or to ask for a helping hand. Friends who just happened to be driving by, walking in the door to say hello on their way through town. Brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, sons, daughters-in-law, cousins, and grandchildren…making themselves at home in that kitchen, which was warmed by the oven, and the love coming from my grandma.
When we were young, my sister and I would arrive after church and Grandma would become a short-order cook, making eggs to-order and her famous pancakes. She made her pancakes from scratch – and she never used a recipe. Some flour, some baking powder, some milk… She’d make as many as we wanted, and if we were especially good, we just might get the special mouse-eared pancake, or the turtle-shaped one.
We’d slather those pancakes with butter, and my sister would pour on some dark Karo corn syrup. I always opted for raspberry preserves. Then on the second and third, I’d sprinkle on some white sugar, and roll them up and eat them like burritos. That’s about as many pancakes as I would eat, because my mother would tell me I was eating too much. (She was right. I’m still trying to lose that weight. Somehow, though, it was all worth it.)
It wasn’t just us, though, who enjoyed those delicious pancakes. Those same people who stopped by just to say hello usually gave in and ate a few. The men who went hunting with my dad and uncles were fed and sent out to the woods with a full belly. People came and went, and they often took some pancakes with them.
My Grandma is also famous for her banana bread. I remember cutting through slice after slice, spreading on the butter, and washing it all down with cold milk, straight from the cows across the road. It seemed that Grandma always had a loaf or two in the freezer, and one on the counter in case company dropped by. If she didn’t happen to have one made, there were definitely some brown bananas hanging around, waiting to be mashed up for the next batch. Even now, that cloyingly sweet aroma of ripening bananas takes me back to my childhood and that red-shingled house with its tiny kitchen. At least that’s my excuse when I ask myself why I’ve let yet another bunch of perfectly good bananas go rotten.
As with the pancakes, Grandma used no recipe for her banana bread; in fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a cookbook in my grandparent’s house. Not that Grandma needed one – cooking for a bunch of farmers required neither fancy techniques nor exotic ingredients. Flour, sugar, milk, baking powder, bananas. There were probably more ingredients, but I never paid attention to the process – I was only interested in the result. And what a result: Golden brown on the outside, with a light brown inside flecked with dark pieces of cooked bananas. Moist and slightly sweet, with a tender, almost juicy crumb.
Grandma would wrap the cooled loaves first in waxed paper, then in foil, creating a beautiful package with a neat fold on the top. I always appreciated that carefully folded package because of its contents. When I came home from college during the holidays, Grandma would always have a loaf or two waiting for me in the freezer. I tried, but sometimes that bread didn’t even survive the three-hour drive back to Albany. Yes, it’s true – I’ve eaten half-frozen banana bread.
When I managed to exhibit some self-control, my friends were extremely grateful. The bread became a sort of currency, like cigarettes in prison: A slice of that golden brown banana bread could be traded for a six-pack of cheap American beer. Friends (some I hadn’t seen all semester) magically arrived at my door, having detected the irresistible scent of bananas and love. Every last delectable crumb of that heavenly loaf was usually gone within four hours of my return to the dorm. But I didn’t worry; Easter (or Christmas) break would be coming soon, and Grandma would have another loaf ready for me when I got there. If I was lucky, maybe two.
Sadly, Grandma doesn’t cook much anymore. She’s in her seventies, and her health is failing. Fatigue and occasional stays in the hospital keep her out of the kitchen, except to heat up the kettle for a cup of that instant coffee that she and Papa seem to survive on. But her pancakes and banana bread are the stuff of legend, and I’m trying to teach myself her recipes because I don’t expect her to make them for me anymore. I’ve experimented with countless banana bread recipes, and they’ve all been delicious in their own right. They just aren’t Grandma’s.