Throughout her career, Joan Crawford took great care in cultivating her public persona, which was a tight-wire act between that of a major movie star and an All-American mother. Ten years before her death, she published My Way of Life (1971), her blueprint for success, but her meatloaf recipe is a wretched failure.
“I use two pounds of ground sirloin, a pound of ground veal, and a pound of sausage meat…thoroughly mixed with three eggs, a bottle of A-1, a good lacing of Worcestershire, a lot of seasoned salt, and finely chopped purple onion and green peppers. I hide four hard-boiled eggs inside the loaf and before it goes into the oven I dribble over more A-1 and Worcestershire and seasoned salt so that a crust will form.”
While it’s not something that I’d cook (a bottle of A-1?), Joan’s addition of hard-boiled eggs is in line with most recipes from around the world; eggs contribute to the protein content and it also looks good sliced. Christina didn’t mention Joan’s meatloaf with the wire hangers, but I sure would have.
During his famously quoted expedition in search of Dr. Livingston, Stanley also said, “If we run out of food, we’ll eat bananas.” Sir Henry’s flippant dismissal of this vital global foodstuff (doubtless in lieu of such hide-bound English staples as boiled beef) summed up the Brit empiricist mind of that day. But well before Stanley’s five seconds of Victorian condescension, bananas had been a staple in the southeastern quarter of the globe since before the days of Homo erectus. While European versions of the Expulsion have Eve offering up an apple (probably a Winesap; the Granny Smith is theologically impossible) as the principle instrument of temptation, many African, Asian and Oceanic interpretations depict Adam as succumbing to a nice banana instead (Eve had a rough cut, why not Adam?). These accounts also describe our primal DNA donors as masking their shame with banana leaves, which makes far more sense to me than that fig drag, even for Eve.
Bananas (Musa sp.) provide a perfect food for apes, naked or otherwise, and while their priapic fruit (along with cigars) has been subject to of all sorts of Freudian fun, sometimes a banana is just a banana, in which case it takes on more manageable proportions. Bananas grow upwards on huge stalks that can contain more than a hundred fruit arrayed in a series of tiers. Before Chiquita and other mega-growers began shipping bananas in chemically sterilized bunches, stores would impale whole untreated stalks on ceiling hooks to ripen. Given the number of nooks and crannies in these masses of vegetation, it’s unsurprising that the occasional tropical creature would piggy-back its way into a local market. My grandfather Jess kept a small country store that supported an endless series of banana stalks from the Cockrell Banana Company in Tupelo as well as any given number of riff-raff and a few wayward in-laws. Jess inspected any produce before he put it up for sale, and occasionally he’d discover some sort of exotic fauna cowering deep amid the bananas, usually a spider big enough to scare the bejesus out of any little old lady out to make pudding for the church social. He’d feed the spiders to the chickens out back, but once, to his great delight, he found a small tropical boa in a stalk and kept it in a glass gallon jar with some hay in the bottom for everyone to ogle at until he sent it to the University of Mississippi, where it enjoyed a long, happy career as a desensitizing agent for people with snake phobias. Jess once said to a ne’er do well cousin: “I got a cottonmouth moccasin into Ole Miss, but I can’t even get you into barber school.”
The fruit of the banana is a sublime canvas of starches, sugars and nutrients, and while potassium makes for a nice touch, from a cooking standpoint the starches and sugars determine its preparation as well as its selection. If you’re simply going to eat a banana, eat a ripe banana, not just some Johnny–come–lately you happen to pick up in the produce section. However tempting you might find those fruit, if you’re going to use them anytime soon they should be avoided: they may be firm, but they’re also bitter. It should go without saying that because bananas are sold in bunches that ripen simultaneously, size shouldn’t really be a key consideration. (You’re just going to have to trust me on this one.) Maturation is a wonderful thing, people, especially when it comes to fruit. Good bananas don’t have a tinge of green upon them: they’re usually freckled and aromatic. They’re also less expensive because—sad to say—society’s obsession with youth extends even to bananas, and supermarkets probably throw away as many “over-ripe” bananas (meaning just the sort of quality fruit I’ve described) as they sell green ones. If you have to buy green bananas, keep them on top of the refrigerator until they ripen before using.
The most famous banana dish in my part of the South (aside from the ubiquitous pudding) is bananas Foster, an old New Orleans recipe. Mérida, the coastal capital of Yucatén, lies only a little over 600 miles directly south of the mouth of the Mississippi, making it the most easily accessible tropical port to the Crescent City. There as in Mobile (site of entry for imported fire ants) and all along the Gulf, tropical fruits and vegetables have graced the local cuisine for over a century. In 1951, Owen E. Brennan challenged his chef, Paul Blangé, to invent a new banana recipe to commemorate the fruit’s commercial importance to the city. Blangé created Bananas Foster. The dessert is named for Richard Foster, a frequent customer and owner of the Foster Awning Company, who served with Brennan on the New Orleans Crime Commission in a heroic civic effort designed to clean up the French Quarter that met with questionable success.
1/4 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup banana liqueur
4 bananas cut in half lengthwise, then halved
1/4 cup dark rum
4 scoops vanilla ice cream
Combine the butter, sugar and cinnamon in a flambé pan or skillet. Place over low heat and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the liqueur, and place the bananas in the pan. When the banana sections just begin to brown, carefully add the rum. Continue to cook the sauce until the rum is hot, and flame the sauce (I recommend a fireplace lighter.) When the flames subside, lift the bananas out of the pan and place in pieces over the ice cream. Generously cover with the warm sauce and serve immediately.