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Ten years ago, I read a book that re-oriented the way I think about food. Barbara Kingsolver’s, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, lured me toward a life of more seasonal-eating, and created a longing within me for a world in which we know the earth better and live into local creation more fully. I wanted to walk out my back door, pluck something from the vine, and eat it.
We were living in India then, going back and forth to Michigan for months at a time. India provides a lush, tropical buffet studded with guavas, pomegranates, and the peculiar but awe-inspiring jackfruit. In India we eat vegetables called drumsticks. Curry leaves flavor the food. And, all of it is found locally and in-season. Among these delights, it is only the regal pomegranate that I can find, “locally” in the US, and then, only in the late fall, from California. None of it is local to me in Michigan or my backyard.
Barbara Kingsolver does not have nice things to say about bananas. I see her point, really. The banana is an industrialized, over-produced fruit. In developing “the” banana — one, singular variety — into a commodity, bananas as we know them now risk extinction. What?!?
Upon return to Michigan, ripped from the clutches of the banana hot zone of India, I stopped buying bananas. I felt so strongly about the moratorium, that I would avert my eyes as I rolled my cart through the grocery store’s produce section.
A couple of years passed, and I purchased little to no bananas unless we were in India where we gorged on dozens of banana varieties in every color, shape, and size. However, as our travel to India became more infrequent, my dear, Indian husband began to long for bananas. My children, too, as though it is some kind of freak genetic disposition to crave bananas. Their incessant requests for bananas seemed dramatic to me, but, like everywhere, we live in a place where bananas are available everyday, at affordable prices.
I started to buy bananas again.
My little family of monkeys was very, very happy.
As it happens, having bananas in the house also, inevitably, leads to bananas here and there over-ripening on the counter, scorned by the very banana-eaters who requested them. This is where I’m happy to admit that I become the one who loves bananas. Old bananas = Banana Bread. In many ways, Banana Bread brought on the truce for me. It eased a good deal of my anxiety over the world’s banana crisis as the baking process, and the food itself, were a ministration to me, and to those around me.
Old, spotty, brown bananas are peeled and mashed, folded into flour, eggs, and butter. I chop walnuts and add them last. How many times — dozens upon dozens, many more than one hundred — have I poured the batter into the loaf pan? The ritual has become my Banana Bread Prayer.
When I got married, my mom packed up a little wooden recipe box, brimming-full with favorite family recipes, and gave it to me at my bridal shower. It was a generous labor of love, and it has been feeding us ever since.
Praying the Banana Bread Prayer generally points first to the saints, to those before me who labored over loaves and filled their families’ tummies. Our own Banana Bread recipe came from a woman named, Flossie, an old farmer’s wife in my dad’s first congregation in upstate New York. Flossie told funny stories and kept her Christmas tree up until Easter. I’ve heard often about the gigantic, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen breakfasts she prepared for her husband, Bill, each and every morning. And, I vividly recall lying on the thin parlor rug in their home and learning to play Othello with my brother the night before we moved to Florida. The methodical process of prepping and mixing the ingredients always brings Flossie to mind. The humble, brown banana connects us still.
And, it is not just Flossie. My heart and my prayers run across generations of believers and loved-ones like her. Often, I think of a particular college student that I knew when I was a chaplain. Like many a hungry boy, he really hankered after homemade banana bread and made sure I knew that. Now he uses his creative gifts to grow and change the kingdom through film.
I also recall introducing my Indian family to the joy of banana bread as ovens first became available there. In a place where I never worried about the aforementioned ethical complications of consuming bananas, it was remarkable to see people enjoy the newfangled banana bread treat. And, as the banana has become ubiquitous throughout all of the United States and beyond, the myriad smiles and conversations I’ve had over banana bread run in and around my mashing, stirring, and pouring process and prayers.
The longer the bananas stall and sit, and the darker their color turns, the sweeter they become. The fruit that slips from a blackened peel is best for the bread that will be baked. I think a lot about the weary, ugly, old fruit that gets turned into something so good, and lovely, and new.
How much of our praying is just like this, arising out of the neglected and rejected parts of our lives, those all together weary and worn? With nothing else left to do we then bring them to God, offer them, add them, until they become something new. For me, praying like an old banana is the most hopeful, sweet thing I can do.