Monday, March 15, 2010

A Perfect Day for Banana Cake

Today, it’s two for the price of one, which is free, anyways, so consider yourselves lucky.

Part 1
I have eight rotting bananas on my counter, begging to be transformed into banana cake, or banana ‘bread’ if you prefer, although I reject the concept that anything made with cake ingredients and without yeast can be called ‘bread’. I don’t know why I accumulate so many bananas, except that they are inexpensive, bought in bunches and all ripen at exactly the same time. I can’t eat more than one a day and they are either too green or too spotty to eat on either side of that one perfect day when they will taste their sweetest and yet still be firm and bright yellow, embodying the Platonic ideal of ‘banana-ness’.

So I make banana cakes. Sometimes I make plain ones; sometimes I add nuts or chocolate chips to make them more exciting. Then I freeze them in case someone drops over for tea and I want to offer a treat. Or, I take them in to school where they are much appreciated by the teachers and office staff. After a few months in the freezer, they get a little icy-looking, so I throw away the older ones to make room for fresher versions (the cakes in the freezer, not the teachers and secretaries….oh, excuse me, administrative assistants).

Here is the recipe for the easiest cake ever. All you need is a fork and a bunch of bananas:

Grease a loaf pan
Mash 2-3 ripe bananas
Add: 1 C. sugar
2 eggs
½ C. oil
1 ¼ C flour
1 tsp. baking soda
Mix this all together with the fork or a spatula, if you like. You may add, if you are so inclined:
½ C chopped nuts and/or
½ C chocolate chips …more or less
Scrape into your loaf pan and bake for about an hour at 350 degrees.

When done, you can slice it up and have a piece with a nice cup of tea while you read the following:

Part 2
Lately, I cannot think of the word ‘banana’ without being reminded of a writer, recently deceased, who made a serious impression on me in my youth and who has lingered in the adolescent realm for over half a century, way beyond his ‘best before’ date. I am speaking, of course, of Jerome David Salinger, a man whose dominance in the high school curriculum is surpassed only by William Shakespeare. He’s the guy who, back in the 50’s, everyone wanted to ‘call up’ after reading his stories. So, to spite his fans, he hid away for over fifty years, writing, but never publishing, unlike today’s obliging authors who must hawk their products in the media, offering autographs along with chit chat, to the masses, in hopes of getting that elusive call from Oprah that will raise them up to bestseller praise or scorn.

Jerry would never stoop. He proved the maxim that people want what they can’t have. And he made a fortune doing it.

As a teacher, I served my time trying desperately to interest my students in the introspective agonies of Holden Caulfield, but it was as a student, myself, that I first encountered this boy in the red hunting cap. Although this novel has been required reading for more than a generation, in my day, it was considered far too risqué to be included on the English curriculum. The life and times of Pip or David Copperfield were deemed far more appropriate, mired as Ontario was in love of all things British, the more Victorian, the better. Anything written after T.S. Eliot was considered literarily irrelevant, even in university. A book containing the word ‘goddamn’ in it, or one with a scene in which a character farts for entertainment value, was certainly not going to gain the approval required to stock English department shelves for the next fifty years.

I was an avid reader. There were very few books written especially for children in those days, at least books without bunnies or courageous dogs, and even fewer actually available at the library. I think there was one bookstore in the city, so I had to be patient. It took a few years for me to find all three volumes of the ‘Anne’ trilogy and discover whether she and Gilbert were going to make it as a couple. ‘Anne of Green Gables’ is still a national treasure; tourists fly from half way round the world to the farmhouse shrine on P.E.I., to worship there! The Japanese, in particular, are exceedingly fond of her, and so, the shops in Charlottetown are crammed with Anne souvenirs. I, myself, succumbed to the hype on a recent visit and tried on a fetching straw bonnet with two red braids dangling from the brim, just to see if I could summon up the old enthusiasm. One look in the mirror discouraged me to such an extent that when we drove by the famous house in Cavendish, I didn’t even get out of the car to pay my respects!

I also loved the Enid Blyton ‘Adventure’ series from a very early age. If you never read Blyton’s ‘Island of Adventure’ or the many sequels, ‘Mountain’, ‘River’, ‘Valley’…(get the idea?) then you missed out on hair-raising tales of four siblings who were left to their own devices much too often, during something the Brits call ‘hols’, when they would pack up their ‘kits’ with a few ‘tins’ and set off looking for trouble. These days, their parents would be hauled into court for child neglect, but back then, it seemed perfectly acceptable for the four of them to risk life and limb for fun. Besides, they were supervised by their chatty white cockatoo, Kiki, who saved them from many disasters, so it’s not like they were completely on their own, I guess. If, like me, you couldn’t wait to get your hands on the next volume of this series, you were pretty familiar with whatever twists and turns a good writer could inflict on an eager audience and were completely unimpressed by the plot of ‘Avatar’.

In Grade Eight, we read ‘Cue for Treason’, in which we all traveled the 16th C. English countryside with a boy, whose name escapes me, and a girl, Kit, disguised as a boy, who played the girl parts in a Shakespearean acting troupe, discovered a plot to assassinate the Queen similar to something you’d find on ‘24’ today, and ended up meeting the Bard, himself.

(I’d bet money, if I had any, that Tom Stoppard read this novel before he sat down to write ‘Shakespeare in Love’).

It was what they used to call ‘a rollicking tale’ and prepared us well for the study of Shakespearean drama, a staple in every grade from then on. It was at this time, we also studied ‘The Coral Island’, an adventure tale full of piracy, cannibalism and self-sufficiency, an excellent introduction to high school society. It is often referred to in the wonderful novel ‘Lord of the Flies,’ which no one teaches anymore, because the language is too high falutin’ for today’s youth.

The first grown-up novel I got to read in school was the classic ghost story ‘The Moonstone’, by Wilke Collins. I don’t remember much about it, but something about ladies in long gowns painting flowers on furniture as a hobby figured heavily in the plot. The setting laid the groundwork, from that point on, for my fascination with the glamorous life of the English landed gentry. This other half seemed to be living a much more gracious life than I was capable of, in suburban North York, and it held a lot of appeal to a girl who owned no ball gowns or horses and carriages.

Soon, I felt able to take on a fat book all by myself and somehow got my hands on a copy of the hot bestseller, ‘Marjorie Morningstar’. Since there were references to having sex, or rather, not having sex, (this was the fifties, after all), my Home Economics teacher, an elderly woman whose breasts dangled over the waistband of her apron, and who taught us how to make things like Apple Pan Dowdy and white sauce (is your mouth watering?) and to hand embroider ‘huck guest towels’, (a skill which, for some reason, has never come in handy in later life), snatched it away from me, pointing out that “there was plenty of time for books like that when you are older”. This enticed me, even more, of course. The moral of that book, that nice Jewish girls should rather aspire to sacrifice their virginity to ne’er do well actors rather than hold out for big engagement rings, doctors and mansions in suburbia, or they’ll be sorry, scarred me for life, thank you Herman. I was so impressionable.

So I was a sitting duck, using Holden’s favorite metaphor, when the opportunity arose to flip through “Catcher”, as we pros are wont to call it. Unfortunately, for me, I chose to begin the book during a particularly dull history lesson on the causes of some world war or other and interrupted the class with a loud guffaw that obviously had nothing to do with the teacher’s point.

If you ever doubt that fashions and tastes change over time, just remember the lesson of ‘Catcher in the Rye’. A novel that went on to be required reading for adolescent students for decades was confiscated, that day, for being a disgusting piece of filth, unsuitable for the delicate sensibilities of young people.

I managed to get another copy and raced through it, never finding that unexpected hysteria again. What I did discover, however, was a voice that spoke like a real person, albeit one a little kvetchier than normal. Being a teenager, myself, most of the agony, ennui and existential angst appealed to me. It was only years later, after much study and effort to scrape beneath the surface (which, in this book isn’t too deep) that I was brought in line with the then current thinking that this ‘voice’, which seemed to sound like a lot of people I knew at the time, was an original one, in literature, at any rate. Having feasted on a steady diet of British Victoriana, I definitely heard the difference. And I liked it. And I wanted more.

Even though it was very difficult for me to get a hold of Salinger’s stories in those years, I do remember eventually reading the ‘Nine Stories’ and ‘Franny and Zooey’ over and over, not always getting what was going on, but knowing I was definitely missing something. For example, I had no idea Franny was pregnant. (Or was she?) The Glass Family seemed very chatty, not like mine, where, although people spoke their minds, the conversation didn’t rise to such philosophical heights. My grandfather, to his credit, did attempt to interest me, on many occasions, in the existence of god argument, but I just rolled my eyes and tried to escape from his kitchen to play outside. I did not, obviously, merit inclusion in a Salinger story, yet. While I liked some of the stories, I puzzled over the meaning in others, not having the jargon or pretentious attitude of a scholar, which I would eventually attain in university.

I remember the fuss over the eventual publication of ‘Seymour: An Introduction’ and ‘Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter” in one tidy white volume with the shapely font, but found myself less and less enamored of this suicidal fellow and his family of precious, precocious relatives the more I read about them. They seemed a pretty phony lot, to me, with all their earnest sincerity. It is my literary theory that if they’d had a little Prozac with their breakfast they’d have functioned at a much higher, if less self-obsessed level.

On a more practical level, I did get to use the title when raising a roof beam in a recent renovation, so it wasn’t a total loss.

It was not till I returned to high school to teach English that I re-encountered Holden. To me, this novel, and the problems of this child, are very specific to a certain time and place. Unlike truly great stories, which work for all occasions (just ask someone who’s looking for a retirement home for their aging parents to sit through King Lear without tearing their hair, rending their garments and guessing the ending), ‘Catcher’ seems to me to be very much a product of mid-20th Century urban America. It’s kind of like old Woody Allen movies, which, although charming and hilarious in their day, no longer have the power to shock and amaze with their originality and wit. The world has changed so much. The whole concept of innocence and experience seems hopelessly dated. Try to sell that to a kid sitting in your class who has just fled from some war or persecution in a remote homeland. One of my students, freshly escaped from Kosovo, puzzlement on his face, came up and asked me what was really bothering Holden, anyways? He just didn’t get it. (He also wondered why, when the fire alarm rang, we left the building but hung around outside of the school, visiting, instead of fleeing for our lives?)

Nowadays, it’s no news that everyone is phony, more or less. Nothing is real, all is virtual, and kids have hundreds of Facebook friends to share their mental meanderings. The very thought that a teenager could check out of his school without the administration putting out an amber alert is inconceivable. Holden’s sexual adventures, such as they were, seem all too tame, these days, not the stuff that would shock or impress youngsters brought up on ‘90210’ or ‘The Hills’, or the kids who claim oral sex doesn’t really count. There was talk, at my old school, of replacing the novel with something ‘more contemporary’ next year. And to think, at one time, this was the epitome of contemporary!

Over the years, since he was so reticent to spin tales for public consumption, stories emerged about Salinger, himself, which tarnished the appeal of the man, for me, at any rate. He was a picky eater, a control freak and liked very young girls. A lot.
It turned out Esme and Allie were his ideal women. Joyce Maynard’s memoir of her youthful indiscretion with the old goat put me off considerably, although I understand, too well, the argument that the works of art should stand well apart from the disgusting, misogynistic creeps who create them. After all, I am familiar with the proclivities of many of the world’s most admired creative types. (Not personally, of course. The creative types I know are not the most admired, although some have had their moments in the limelight. Their proclivities are relatively normal.

And now, J.D. is gone. English teachers everywhere tingle with anticipation to see what treasures, if any, are stored in his vault.

I, for one, can control myself.


  1. I am thrilled to be able to give you a handy dandy kitchen hint. Always separate most of the bananas in the bunch. They will ripen slower.
    Always a pleasure the read your 'stuff'

  2. I would never say "more or less" in any recipe.

  3. Huge fan of banana bread, and now banana cake. I love how you compile such useful information. We Americans appreciate your genius.

  4. I loved all things Salinger, particularly Franny and Zooey and his shorts stories. I confess that I read Catcher for the first time last year!! and loved it! I must comment on another matter but not on your recipe for banana cake. I'm sure it's delicious and as a fair cook, I can deal with 'more or less'. But, what kicked me in the head was your reference to 'Cue for Treason'. I haven't thought about that book since grade 8. It was one of the first required readings that I truly loved. What an awakening. Thanks for that, Pidgie.