I was poking through the bookshelves in the Trinity Episcopal Church Thrift Shop a few weeks before Christmas, and I turned up this handsome booklet, which was published in 1947 by the United Fruit Company. The cover, reproduced as a full spread here, shows a nice big hand of bananas in a pressed-glass banana stand, an item that became popular in the 1890s, the booklet tells us, when bananas first became widely available. I like the almost-symmetry of this cover; if you look at just the front cover, it is particularly striking. The design is elegant and simple, especially compared to most food-company cookbooks. But the interior is a sheer descent into madness.
The very first spread in the book is a little bit off, with its suggestion that we use fruit as a decorative accent all over the house. This is a great idea for the first 30 seconds or so, but what happens when the bananas turn brown, the fruit flies take up residence, or the kids come in and wreck the symmetry of your bowl of fruit by eating it? I might put a bowl of fruit on the table, but not next to my handsome genuine leather editions of The Collector’s Shelf Of Books.
The first round of recipes is pretty normal. The anonymous authors suggest as many ways as possible to put bananas on your cereal—sure, you can go with the classic slices, but you can also sculpt your banana into a daisy, a fan, or even a bunny, or you can score the sides before slicing it to make fluted bananas. You can also fry up your bananas with ham and eggs, or mash a banana into a glass with a raw egg and some nice, cold milk, if you’re the high-protein type. They also have quite an array of banana smoothies.
Things start to get a little weird on the salad page, however. Behold this Springtime Salad. It looks benign enough, until you read the list of ingredients: lime and lemon gelatin, torn chicory, dry mustard, finely diced onion, thinly sliced radishes, and bananas. If bananas, onions, and radishes seem like an infelicitous combination, just imagine what it must be like to put a spoonful of jello salad into your mouth and encounter chicory, which has the texture of cut-up plastic netting. The other salads are mostly fruit salads and don’t sound too terrible, with the exception of the Banana Peanut Butter Salad.
You do get the feeling that the authors were running out of things to say with this snack suggestion:
For a quick-energy pickup just peel a banana and enjoy its mellow flavor and smooth texture.
Fooled you! They are Banana Scallops! Bananas also make an appearance in Fillet of Sole Amandine and Shrimp Curry, but the weirdest recipe in the book has to be Steak a la Stanley, “a hearty dish for the men of your house: steak broiled with golden bananas.”
Clearly, the authors of this book were getting desperate. Otherwise, why would they even mention putting mashed bananas in meatloaf? Or the Banana Mixed Grill, which consists of grilled hamburgers, tomatoes, and bananas? And these sauces just look wrong:
It’s like they just took random normal meals—sliced turkey with green beans, lamb chops with carrots and mint jelly—and inserted bananas willy-nilly.
Fortunately, things slide back to normal with the final section of the book, Desserts, because bananas make pretty good desserts. The usual suspects make their appearance—banana split, banana cake, banana cream pie—although oddly a favorite of mine, banana pudding, is nowhere to be seen. And there are creative dishes as well, such as Banana Flambe, Hawaiian Tidbits (bananas coated with coconut and chopped nuts) and Bananas Scheherazade, which appears to be bananas baked with dried fruits, sliced grapes, and chopped nuts. And the section on quick breads makes for a triumphant finish.
It must be said that this cookbook has nice, clean layouts and (mostly) high-quality photography for the era. The vast majority of the recipes are just fine, but in their attempt to introduce bananas into every course of every meal, the creators’ reach far exceeded their grasp, and the result is a collection of truly regrettable recipes. Unless that banana meatloaf is a whole lot better than I think it is.
Edit: Want a copy of your own? Look here!