From the Homestead Kitchen: Going Bananas

by Gennie Truelock

One of the things that I enjoy most about the Homestead’s diverse collection of cookbooks and recipe pamphlets is the multitude of insights that they provide into a particular time and place. Want to know what dishes were cooked up in the San Gabriel Valley during the 1920s? Take a look at the cookbook published by the Alhambra Women’s Club in 1928. How did a local brewery try to survive Prohibition? Turn to the pamphlet, Tried and Tested Recipes with Eastside Pure Malt Syrup created by the Los Angeles Brewing Company, which contains a plea to use malt syrup as a flavoring for breads, cakes, and cookies. One slim pamphlet that recently caught my attention was created to introduce Americans to what was then a very unfamiliar fruit: the banana.

Banana recipe coverYes! Homemade Banana Recipes, 1929. From the Homestead Museum’s collection.

Today the banana is the most popular fresh fruit consumed in the US, with Americans eating an average of 10 pounds a year. But before we dive into a recipe, let’s briefly explore why a pamphlet printed in 1929, needed to educate its reader on a fruit that is now a staple in most homes. It turns out that the banana had to overcome many obstacles to get to market and now faces even bigger challenges trying to stay there.

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Indigenous to parts of Asia and the Middle East, and later brought to the Caribbean and Latin America, the banana was rarely seen in North American markets until the late 19th century. Limitations on transportation, refrigeration, and ease of damage to the fruit made it very challenging to ship to the US until the 1870s. However, once Americans got a taste for the elongated botanical berry, they went “bananas.”

In 1876, a banana plant, (although commonly referred to as a tree, it is actually an herb) was placed on display in the Horticultural Hall at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and the fruit was sold to visitors for ten cents a bunch. The plant attracted so much attention that a guard had to be placed at the exhibit to prevent people from damaging it. By the 1880s, as steamships overtook sailing vessels, businessmen Andrew Preston and Minor Cooper Keith, saw an opportunity to import the Gros Michel, or Big Mike banana, to the East Coast under the auspices of the Boston Fruit Company, later known as the United Fruit Company, which today is the Chiquita brand. When refrigerated railroad cars were introduced in the 1920s, this allowed the fruit to be distributed across the nation and the popularity of the banana quickly spread.

Marketing the Big Mike 

At the start of the 20th century three factors caused the banana to skyrocket in popularity in the US. Their cost, nutritional benefits, and hygienic wrapper. Growing bananas commercially requires a climate that is free from frost, which means that it cannot be grown in North America. By the end of the 1890s, Preston and Keith and their United Fruit Company, and later other brands such as Del Monte and Dole, established banana plantations in Central and South American countries and various island nations. Political instability in many of these areas, along with limited economic resources and unfair labor practices, enabled these companies to sell the fruit cheaply while still making tremendous profits. The importation of the banana also coincided with two growing public concerns: nutrition and food safety. By the end of the 1800s as access to more varieties of fruit, especially in urban areas, increased, fruit became an important part of a healthy diet. Bananas flourished in this fruit-positive climate, and were often touted as a health food.  Also, as public concerns over disease transmission, germs, and food contamination grew during this period, bananas seemed to be the perfect food. The peel ensured a safe product, offering consumers a food that was both germ-free and nutritious.

Banana Recipe booklet first pages
Inside cover of  Yes! Homemade Banana Recipes, 1929. From the Homestead Museum’s collection.

But the bananas that were first consumed by our grandparents or great-grandparents isn’t the type of banana available in markets today. The Big Mike variety is fatter, sweeter, and its flavor profile is similar to what we taste in banana-flavored candies. However, when a fungus, known as Panama disease, began decimating crops in the 1950s, it became no longer commercially viable to grow.

Enter the Cavendish

The Cavendish is the only available banana type in stores today, but has been cultivated since the 1830s. Beginning in the 1820s, Irish botanist Charles Telfair began a collection of banana plants on the island of Mauritius off the southeast coast of Africa. In 1829, he shipped a couple of plants to an acquaintance in England, where they eventually passed into the hands of the 7th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish. Cavendish’s gardener was able to cultivate the plants in the Duke’s greenhouse, and the Cavendish banana was born. By the 1850s, the Cavendish was grown in Tahiti, Hawaii, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, but because it’s smaller and the flavor is muted in comparison to the Big Mike variety, it was not considered as commercially successful until Panama disease started to literally wipe out the competition. Sadly, it seems that the Cavendish is now facing the same fate as its predecessor. Because of efforts to provide consistency of the fruit, commercial bananas are reproduced by cloning, essentially taking a clipping from one plant and putting it in the ground to grow another one, making them genetically identical. This is problematic when a virus strikes, which it has. A new strain of the fungus that decimated the Big Mike variety is now making its way through Cavendish farms around the world and efforts have been underway to prevent another banana extinction. To read more about efforts to save the banana, take a look at these articles from National Geographic and Popular Science.

Dutch Banana Cake

While the future of bananas may be uncertain, I thought it would be interesting to try a dish from its past. While I don’t have access to the Big Mike variety that may have been first used for this dish, I did have all the other ingredients necessary to give the Dutch Banana Cake a try. Why it’s called a “Dutch” banana cake, I don’t know, maybe that will be the subject of a follow-up post.

Dutch Banana Cake Recipe crop
Recipe for Dutch Banana Cake from Yes! Homemade Banana Recipes, 1929. From the Homestead Museum’s collection.

 The result? Pretty tasty.

moody banana
For a decadent but easy dessert top the cake with caramel sauce and whipped cream.

A simple snacking cake that comes together very quickly. The blending method (mixing all dry ingredients first, then adding the butter with a little liquid, and finishing with the rest of the wet ingredients) is used to make the dough, which slows the creation of gluten and makes for a very tender crumb when baked, but the batter is very thick to start. I added enough milk to make the dough look like a slightly loose cookie dough and reduced the baking powder to 1 teaspoon, since I am using a double acting powder instead of a single action that would have been commonly found in the 1920s. I would also recommend reducing the oven temperature to 350 (my oven runs pretty hot) and baked it for 40-45 minutes. Serve it with whipped cream or a sauce, since the look of it is a bit boring. If I were to make this again, I would also add a teaspoon of vanilla just to ramp up the flavor in the cake since it is a little bland. I hope that you give this recipe a try and if you do, let us know what you think by tagging us @homesteadmuseum.

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