Thank you for the kind get-well wishes and emails. I appreciated them a lot. Mercifully, the illness that swept in so quickly, leaving me flat on the couch for three days, left just as swiftly as it arrived. I suffered mostly a numbing fatigue and head congestion, lacking energy to do much of anything except stare out the window.
And read. I blame my current thought process on the book at hand, ‘ A Slice of Life- Contemporary Writers on Food’ that has followed me around lately. It was an ‘A-HA’ find at Half Price Books- oh, probably back in the Fall, before holiday stuff, before the chill of Winter set in, before the lethargy that inevitably follows Christmas and New Years. It got dropped into a magazine rack and forgotten. When I pulled it out it was covered in dust. So well I treat my belongings.
But then I opened it and got swept away. It all started to make sense to me with just a few pages, this nagging sense of why, and how. Why do we constantly search for the perfect meal, the best ingredient, the finest eating experience? How do we achieve it, and better yet, maintain and hold on to it? And what exactly are we looking for anyway?
Outside of the pages of that book, I began to find my answer in a slice of this tea bread and the comfort of a favored, but cracked tea cup.
So it’s no secret to me that when I bake I feel like I am channeling my mother’s spirit, the one that would wake at dawn in the summer to bake cookies before the sun burned the air crisp and dry; this is simple for my mind to deduct, but there has always been something else that nags at me, and with the first bite of anything I make, I take from it several things. One- it’s comfort in the true sense of the word. Nothing touches us deeper than homebaked something, anything. We can eat a store-bought chocolate chip cookie, or nibble on a slice of bread from a plastic bag, but it really doesn’t touch us. It doesn’t soothe. The second has always been far more elusive, and less attainable and finally I know what it is. It’s the taste of home, and I think for most of us, it’s the one missing element in everything we cook.
This is not to say that we can’t find comfort in the foods we eat, the meals we prepare for others, but what is it, with Christmas still within a memory’s grasp, that makes us want to recreate ‘the meals we used to know’? Why is it so important for people to sit down- let’s say at holiday time- to a meal of familiar foods, the same tastes and textures we grew up with? Isn’t anyone interested in something new? No. We’re interested in being home.
In each bite, each dish we make or cookie baked or cake decorated, aren’t we just a wee bit eager to find that one spot in us that tells us, without a doubt, that we’re home again? Isn’t it why we search high and low for the perfect cookie recipe, try a dozen methods of roasting chicken, bake loaf after loaf of banana bread in a futile search for a missing ingredient that we’re never going to find? This is why home-cooking has become such an explosive and highly demanded part of our lives, why we gather at the table with eager eyes; it isn’t so much the food, it’s what the food can bring to us that nothing else can.
Take that banana bread, the reason for this post. My mother made banana bread all the time. I can picture our kitchen- it was small and so very dated- dulled yellow walls and a deeply blue and green carpet- carpet! in the kitchen!- the dishwasher we had to attach to the faucet, the jar of bacon grease on the stove. I can recall leaning on the counter, the southern window at my back, nibbling away at a slice of her banana bread, a small pile of unwanted walnuts growing on the counter next to my elbow. I loved her banana bread; she purposefully would buy too many bananas so that she could make it. It was perfectly flecked with banana, it smelled wonderful and she beamed with every loaf. I even have her recipe, yellowed as those walls, frail and old, crinkling at the edges. But I make the loaves and it doesn’t taste the same. I’m at my own kitchen counter with the bright southern light, my dishwasher tucked under the counter, no bacon grease in sight. But the recipe is the same and shouldn’t it taste like I remember? It never does. Something is always missing. It’s not the essence of those despised walnuts, or the scene out the window of my youth. It isn’t a method of her own that I never learned. It’s her kitchen; it’s her warmth and love, the very scent of home. We can have our own places we call home, and they feel that way to us the moment we step in the door. We turn out the lights and know, by heart and finger touch, just how to walk through the rooms. But what we make in our own kitchens, even with a treasured recipe, never seems to taste exactly like we remember. An old friend once extolled the merits of the Italian foods she ate while working on that continent, and her extreme disappointment, upon opening a small bottle of olive oil that she brought home, a favored flavor while “on the boot” to find that, in her words “It tasted just like any old olive oil. It wasn’t anything like I remembered.” Of course not. She wasn’t in Italy. The banana bread is the same thing; it’s the exact same recipe I ate when I was young, but I’m eating it on another continent, a figurative place that’s a whole lifetime away from what I remember. It’s the tea cup in our lives, with the crack that makes it imperfect, one we can’t throw out.
Growing up, our meals weren’t stellar. My mom wasn’t that great of a cook; she could cook, but it wasn’t creative, nor with an eye towards health. I have no fondness for much from my childhood, except an occasional meat loaf, or my own grown up version of Tuna Pasta. I still recall vividly a recipe I made two years ago that reminded me so much of an over-served childhood meal that I simply couldn’t eat it. There is no love lost for my food memories as a kid, what I eat now is all my doing, my likes and for my health. Griffin has many favorites that I make, one being his absolute beloved Curry Chicken. This was on the menu last night and I made sure that the quantity was large enough for him to load up on without depriving the rest of us. To see his eyes as he leapt down the stairs, and his eager dance around the stove, lifting the spoon, taking in the scent, I had to think to myself that somewhere in his future, he’s going to pull out what he needs for his favorite meal, in a kitchen of his own, maybe with an eager child waiting. He’ll have the same turmeric-stained spoon, the reliable straight side skillet to use, the same method and recipe, and with his first bite, will he lift his head, his mind wondering ‘Hey, what’s this missing?’
Applesauce Banana Bread
· 4 Bananas — ripe
· 1/2 c. Sugar
· 3/4 c. Applesauce
· 1 T. Vanilla Extract
· 2 Eggs
· 1 T. Baking Soda
· 1 T. Baking Powder
· 1 t. Salt
· 2 c. AP Flour
Preheat oven to 350 F. Place bananas in a large bowl and mash with fork. Stir in sugar and let stand for 15 minutes.
Add applesauce, vanilla and eggs, mix well. Stir dry ingredients together, add to banana mix and blend only until incorporated. Pour into standard loaf pan coated with nonstick cooking spray. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Remove from oven and let stand 10 minutes before removing from pan. Cool on wire rack.
For the Chicken Curry recipe, the only one I use, go HERE.