These limitations allowed banana bread’s profile to flourish, expanding the synapses tucked inside a pretty simple recipe. As PJ Hamel notes, “Banana-bread recipes down the decades have in common bananas, sweetener, a chemical leavener, some fat and flour. But beyond that they can differ wildly.” And across Caribbean foodways — Jamaica was the first commercial banana producer in the Western Hemisphere — banana bread remains indispensable. My mother’s recipe (simple and brisk: 10/10) is as easy to form as the one from my old local Caribbean market (fleeting and seasonal: 10/10), which was as delicious as the one from a coffee shop I used to frequent in the Shimokitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo, a humble walnut loaf (hand-held, approachable) that undersold but over-delivered (rewired my palate, left me dreaming about it for years: 10/10).
And banana bread adapts to its makers. In his cookbook “West Winds,” Riaz Phillips subs the banana out for plantain, creating a fluffy, enveloping loaf. In Shaun McAnuff’s video series “Flava and Friends,” he notes a recipe by a dentist named Kevin Dapaah that dispenses with sugar entirely. And this is before broaching the universe of viable fillings. You can stuff your bread with raisins, cranberries, coconut, cream cheese, yogurt, nutella, dark chocolate or even milk chocolate. There are as many opportunities for variation as you have desires.
In Helen Oyeyemi’s novel “Gingerbread,” for one character, partaking in a slice of that namesake treat “is like eating revenge.” For me, banana bread eats like endearment. And lately, my favorite version combines flavor profiles close to my heart: A miso pecan banana bread comes together easily. The bread is sweet (but not too sweet). The miso (a perfect ingredient) compliments that sugar, for a bite that’s distinct without hitting too sharply. And the bread’s nuttiness isn’t overwhelming but rather inviting.
But the loveliest part of banana bread could be its flexibility: If this recipe doesn’t work for you, just change it. Add a little more miso. Maybe lighten up on the sugar. Or toss in another half cup of pecans until you’ve hit the apex of your own curiosity.
This desire to form delight out of what’s available is hardly remarkable. But the idea behind it — that pleasure is something that everyone deserves, in whatever context, with whatever’s on hand — delights me every time. And it’s worth admiring how, exactly, this recipe, born from the humblest circumstances, inspires the pursuit of contentment. Banana bread makes you feel good, and there are infinite ways of getting there. It’s a desire as expansive as it is global, and that’s a mighty reassuring idea.