The first banana bread that shocked me into awareness was baked in New Orleans. I was flirting with a barista, and after we bored ourselves to tears, he offered me a slice across the counter. I grew up with the dish — which made it perennially uninteresting — but he insisted that this one was different. And he was entirely right. The loaf tasted sweet without being overbearing. Its crumble melted across the tongue. That bite made me more present. For the next few months, I bought a slice weekly until I moved, still chewing on a slice as my flight crossed the Louisiana state line.
Banana bread is both striking and unremarkable, simple and staggering, found on the counters of coffee shops and apartment bar tops and tiny cafes globally. A corner piece can shift your entire day. Or maybe your tea is a slice from the middle, full of flavor without the baggage of a crust. Or perhaps your ideal banana bread is whichever iteration is available — YouTube’s code sags under the weight of banana-bread recipes, and they’re each as delicious as the impulses behind them. It’s a dish as perfect as it is malleable.
The origins of banana bread are pretty remarkable. Bananas aren’t indigenous to the Americas, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that they were available in the United States. The predicament of transporting a fruit that rotted so quickly was difficult to parse until the widespread availability of refrigeration methods around the turn of the 20th century. As the Great Depression rolled through, every article of food became a necessity; the humble banana’s status as a breakfast curiosity folded into recipes intent on maximizing its possibilities. Alongside the eventual widespread availability of chemical leaveners, like baking powder and baking soda, the impetus and the possibility for variation upon variation of banana bread were catalyzed: How could bare necessities be made beautiful? Which flavor portraits could be painted through primary colors?
It’s worth admiring how, exactly, this recipe, born from the humblest circumstances, inspires the pursuit of contentment.
These limitations allowed banana bread’s profile to flourish, expanding the synapses tucked inside a pretty simple recipe. As PJ Hamel notes, “Banana-bread recipes down the decades have in common bananas, sweetener, a chemical leavener, some fat and flour. But beyond that they can differ wildly.” And across Caribbean foodways — Jamaica was the first commercial banana producer in the Western Hemisphere — banana bread remains indispensable. My mother’s recipe (simple and brisk: 10/10) is as easy to form as the one from my old local Caribbean market (fleeting and seasonal: 10/10), which was as delicious as the one from a coffee shop I used to frequent in the Shimokitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo, a humble walnut loaf (hand-held, approachable) that undersold but over-delivered (rewired my palate, left me dreaming about it for years: 10/10).
And banana bread adapts to its makers. In his cookbook “West Winds,” Riaz Phillips subs the banana out for plantain, creating a fluffy, enveloping loaf. In Shaun McAnuff’s video series “Flava and Friends,” he notes a recipe by a dentist named Kevin Dapaah that dispenses with sugar entirely. And this is before broaching the universe of viable fillings. You can stuff your bread with raisins, cranberries, coconut, cream cheese, yogurt, nutella, dark chocolate or even milk chocolate. There are as many opportunities for variation as you have desires.
In Helen Oyeyemi’s novel “Gingerbread,” for one character, partaking in a slice of that namesake treat “is like eating revenge.” For me, banana bread eats like endearment. And lately, my favorite version combines flavor profiles close to my heart: A miso pecan banana bread comes together easily. The bread is sweet (but not too sweet). The miso (a perfect ingredient) complements that sugar, for a bite that’s distinct without hitting too sharply. And the bread’s nuttiness isn’t overwhelming but rather inviting.
But the loveliest part of banana bread could be its flexibility: If this recipe doesn’t work for you, just change it. Add a little more miso. Maybe lighten up on the sugar. Or toss in another half cup of pecans until you’ve hit the apex of your own curiosity.
This desire to form delight out of what’s available is hardly remarkable. But the idea behind it — that pleasure is something that everyone deserves, in whatever context, with whatever’s on hand — delights me every time. And it’s worth admiring how, exactly, this recipe, born from the humblest circumstances, inspires the pursuit of contentment. Banana bread makes you feel good, and there are infinite ways of getting there. It’s a desire as expansive as it is global, and that’s a mighty reassuring idea.
And, as ever, there’s potential for surprise. A few days before Christmas, navigating the vestiges of an entirely ridiculous hangover in Tokyo, I slogged through Yoyogi Park until I made it to Little Nap Coffee Stand. It’s a tiny cafe flanked by a playground where preschoolers grasp at the flowers. The shop’s warmth was a reprieve from the chill, and one of its hosts was kind enough to pass me a middle slice with my latte. Which was a holiday gift: Their banana bread was moist and supple on the inside, while sweet and crumbly across the top. It woke me up — which is to say it made me feel present — with its familiarity. And isn’t that the most you could ask for?
Recipe: Miso Pecan Banana Bread