An occasional meal in my childhood, the ultimate banana sandwich is a study in simplicity. One banana, about to be over ripe. You do not want it to be too brown, nor do you want it to be too firm. A Goldilocks banana. Some melted butter, a little sugar, and two pieces of perfectly fluffy white bread. The texture of the white bread is important. It should be light and airy, with very little chew. If you live in New Orleans, then you know the perfect example is Bunny Bread.
Part of the joy in sitting still for the past six weeks has been reminiscing about the meals of my childhood. Those memories take me back to the place where I felt safe and warm, secure in the knowledge that all was right with the world. The world before I knew of death, loss, danger and pandemics.
Nothing ties me more to that world or that time than the thoughts of what we ate. Replicating those dishes is a visceral, physical manifestation of those feelings of well-being. Yesterday I texted my family members to see if any of them remembered the recipe to my grandma’s codfish balls or shrimp stew. Both meals had been on my mind.
My cousin, Pam, said she remembered them and regrets not asking many questions before losing Grandma. My daughter, Laura, remembered loving the butter with sugar sprinkled on white bread my parents gave her. Sommer, my niece, had no memories of the codfish, but did talk about the banana sandwiches she adored.
Since yesterday afternoon, I have been thinking of the banana sandwiches. Hardly a healthy thing. Sugar, fat and carbs of the worst kind. Total comfort food. Surprising that I lasted almost 24 hours before I had to make one.
Eating a bite of that warm, creamy banana sandwich sends me straight back into my childhood kitchen. I am standing on the chilly terrazzo floor. Flecked with black and jade green, it is shiny and ever so smooth. When my parents built our home, Dad hired a couple of Italian craftsmen to teach him the art of terrazzo. I can still smell the acrylic sealer that he used to varnish the floor before every party, after which time he buffed it with the gigantic, impossible to maneuver machine.
These were the best times to get a running start from the kitchen, then slide as far down the hall as we could in our socks. It was a long, narrow hallway that went through the front room and ended at the front door. The hallway was unique in that it was feather dusted in iridescent gold paint.
For some reason, we loved to stretch our arms out on either side, then run our hands along the walls as we walked down the hall. That and the sock racing could land us a simple shake of Mom’s head, to as much as a bop on the sides of our heads if Dad caught us.
Grandma walks into the kitchen, flip-flop noises from her fuzzy slippers. Her cardiologist told her she needed to walk 500 steps a day, due to her angina. She took this seriously, making us all crazy by flip-flopping up and down the hall all day long.
Though she is normally the family cook, today Dad is manning the stove, making us banana sandwiches. It is late Saturday morning. He had a good day at the track yesterday, winning both a daily double and a trifecta.
Wins were celebrated with a big bag of hot crawfish, which we enjoyed last night, ten dollar bills for us kids, and Sunday treats such as French fries, grilled cheese sandwiches, or today’s banana sandwich.
Mom is in her spot at the table, to the right of the head, where Dad sits. I sit to the right of Mom, while my sister, Stacey, sits directly across from her. Grandma’s place is to the right of Stacey. No one ever assigned us these seats. I just remember that this is where we always sat.
Our table was the biggest I had ever seen. A castoff from an office remodel, Mom’s boss, Mr. Hanbury, had given it to her. In its former life, it was the centerpiece of a board room. Like the monumental decisions made at business meetings, we, too, circled the wagons at that table. Everything from homework to dinners each night to discussing family crisis took place there.
This morning Grandma isn’t sitting at the table, however. She has carried in a container of green plastic rollers and bobby pins. Mom is fresh from the shower. While Dad cooks, Grandma gets to setting Mom’s hair.
She places a few bobby pins in her mouth, dexterously parting and rolling Mom’s hair as we wait. Later, Mom will dry her hair under the hot pink and gold salon style dryer that lives in our extra kitchen. In Grandma’s former life, she was a beautician, turning her living room into a salon so that she could feed her kids on the days her husband was too drunk to come home from the bar.
We salivate, waiting for the sandwiches. The butter and sugar have begun to caramelize. Though we can’t see it from where we sit, the sweet smell of sugary banana has reached us. Impatient, my sister, Stacey, and I kick each other under the table. We sip from cups of hot Lipton tea.
My first memory, in fact, includes Lipton tea. As a baby and toddler I slept in the front room of our home, my crib abutting the large picture window that looked out into the street. I remember the gauzy white curtains that hung over the window, awakening and then pulling the curtains aside. I was waiting for Grandma’s car to arrive.
It wasn’t until later that Grandma came to live with us. I remember her walking up the path, raised, gladiolus filled garden beds on either side. The bricks of that garden had been hand laid by Dad. The top bricks, forming a border and lip to the beds had been painted forest green by Mom. As we grew, Stacey and I were recruited to weed that garden and help Mom plant the flower bulbs every year. I watch Grandma juggling her purse to get the key in the door.
After a hug and a kiss, she takes me out of the crib and I follow her into the kitchen. There she puts on the kettle, and gets my bottle ready for hot tea by adding milk with plenty of sugar. How I loved that tea.
Mornings at home always began with a cup of that tea. While Daddy serves up our banana sandwiches, he promises to take us later to the levee or Monkey Hill. At either place we could drop and roll down the hill, laughing all the way to the bottom.
While he took us to play, Mom would nap. Later they would go out dancing with their friends.
Grandma would bring out the gallon of Neapolitan ice cream and make homemade root beer in a glass pitcher. We would lay our sleeping bags on the living room floor and play with a Magic 8 Ball or the Ouija Board. What would the future bring?
My tummy is full. I have no need to go into the kitchen and make myself another banana sandwich. Not only have the requisite twenty minutes passed since eating, but I have nourished my soul with a little journey to the past.
Back then, I had no idea of what a pandemic was, much less the thought I would ever experience one. Were Mom, Dad and Grandma here now, however, I know how they would respond. They had survived the depression and World War II. Uneducated, they built a life with their wits and their hands.
They took joy in the little things. A cup of tea, the rhumba and cha-cha. Rolling down a grassy hill. A banana sandwich.
A banana sandwich may not seem like much, but in the right context it is everything in the world.
The Perfect Banana Sandwich
2 slices of fluffy white bread
1 tablespoon butter
1 ripe banana
Sprinkle of sugar
Slice banana in half horizontally and then each half vertically. Melt butter in a small nonstick frying pan on medium high heat. Place bananas in a single layer in pan. Saute until the edges are brown. Just a minute or so. Carefully flip bananas to the other side, cooking until the edges are brown also. Place on a slice of bread and top with a sprinkle of sugar, then the other slice of bread. Cut in half diagonally. Enjoy while warm.