I am part of a family that believes in edible displays of affection. We bake birthday cakes and bring salads, encourage seconds, and exchange recipes. We feed the folks we love. So the first time I was invited to hubby’s family’s “shack” (more on that moniker in a moment), my mind instantly focused on the task before me: what to cook/bake/otherwise prepare.
At this point, hubby and I were just dating, and I hadn’t met any of the extended family. The weekend was a turning point: I was being introduced and labeled “girlfriend” in front of grandpa, grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins, not to mention spending a notably extended period of time with my future father-and-brothers-in-law. Meeting the extended family is a big step in any relationship. It allows a lot of peripheral people into your relationship…it gives you an audience, for better or worse. I felt the pressure and knew I had one shot to make a good impression.
My mission– to impress my future family by feeding them– was complicated by the fact that the shack is a one-room hovel with no running water, no refrigerator, and limited electricity. Let’s call it rustic. I knew we’d all be sleeping in bunk beds lined up along the walls, so that as soon as I’d roll over in the morning I’d be face to face with Grandma, or one of the four uncles whose names start with D. I knew I wouldn’t properly brush my teeth for three days. Oye. I wanted to bring something homey and casual, perhaps something that showed my domestic streak, that might convince these people what a good wife I’d make, that might show them how grateful I was to be there, how happy I was to be included and how much I loved their son/grandson/nephew. Banana bread seemed a perfect contribution: fresh, buttery, rich banana bread, prepared with love by yours truly.
I hardly need to tell you what happened, with those kinds of expectations. With so much riding on this loaf, I knew I couldn’t just fall back on my mom’s tried and true recipe, the one she made almost every week growing up. The one we loved. No, in a fit of pride, I went out of my way to read countless recipes, finally settling on one that sounded interesting and nutritious (note to self: never choose “interesting” over “love”). I baked the night before we left. What came out of the oven smelled like bananas and flour, it had warm brown coloring and dark edges. I crossed my fingers and went to bed. As anyone who bakes for public consumption has no doubt experienced, one must suffer an agonizing purgatory after the baking, because it is nearly impossible to try a bite of cake, pie, bar, or bread without notice. Unlike salad, soup, or cookies, easily tasted and adjusted as you go, most baked goods are a one-shot deal; no going back. Such was this.
As I slumbered, jittery with happy anxiety and ready to head to the Northwoods with a group of relative strangers, my bread slumped. I awoke to find a dense, squat little thing, where previously there had been something more like a small loaf. Horrified, I shook the bread (3 good bananas in there!) out of the pan. It looked like banana bread, just a sadder, shorter version of it. Cut into slices, it might resemble biscotti more than anything, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t taste good…my mind raced. It was not yet 6:00 a.m., pitch dark, we needed to be on the road immediately, and I had nothing else to bring– should I risk it? I wrapped my brown lump in tinfoil and hoped it would seem taller by the time we got to the shack.
The universe has little tolerance for bakers with illogical hopes (or too much whole wheat flour). To my chagrin, the bread seemed to have sunk even further by the time we arrived at the cabin. I faced an impossible quandary: to show up empty-handed (a grave sin in my family) or to risk offering my potentially hazardous banana bread. I swallowed my pride and, after being introduced to a roomful of future in-laws, I reached into my bag, approached Grandma P, matriarch of this large and wonderful family, and said, “Thank you for having me. I brought you banana bread.” The silence was palpable. My gift looked ridiculous, like a long, narrow brownie, some misshapen lump that no one even knew how to serve. Finally, ashamed and embarrassed, I whispered, “It came out a little flat.” Grandma smiled and touched my arm. “Sometimes it’s just your baking powder, dear. I always forget to buy a new canister until my bread comes out flat.” With a wink, she turned away.
My banana bread sat on the table for two days. I tried one piece: it was dry and soggy at the same time, heavy and dense and weird. No one else tried any, and I don’t blame them. Late in the second day I found myself alone in the shack while everyone else was outside. I dumped my little offering into the trash, under a cereal box, praying it would be forgotten. I sent up silent thoughts of gratitude, and I consider them again tonight: Thank you Grandma P, for showing me that it’s good to give thankfully, but it is great to receive graciously. Thank you for reminding me that generosity comes in many forms.
My mom and I laughed when I told her the whole humiliating story. Later, she copied out her banana bread recipe, which is now MY banana bread recipe. I’ve made the recipe so many times that I have my own little tweaks and secrets, and the results are always edible. May we never stray from our mothers’ classics, especially when we’re banking our first impressions on the results.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 medium ripe bananas
secret ingredient: 1/2 tsp. almond extract
1/2 cup buttermilk
Combine all dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt, soda. Cream butter, eggs, and sugar. Add mashed bananas. [now, my secret ingredient]: Add almond extract.
Add milk alternating with flour mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour in a greased bread pan.
One day later (when you remember to take a picture) your results may resemble this: