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Op-Ed: Quarantine bakers, we can do better than banana bread

Banana bread in a loaf pan
Banana bread
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

I am a quarantine baker, because baking is meditation but better: You live in the moment and get a treat for having done so.

I look for recipes that symbolize the qualities we need to endure our newly restricted lives, ones that feel substantial and reward a disciplined attention to task. So I would like someone to explain why a search for “banana bread recipe” yields 452,000,000 Google search results. It will be more by the time you read this; it’s the Instagram darling of the moment.

Banana bread’s fans, I’m sure, are sharpening their butter knives to come after me. But the very thought of it makes me want to curl up in a dress dotted with very tiny pastel flowers, drink tea out of a bone china cup and reread “Pride and Prejudice.” While there is nothing wrong with that — OK, maybe the dress has to go — surely this is not the gestalt we need when even a rogue doorknob can make us sick. Banana bread is the blank slate of quick breads, as willing to collaborate with chocolate chips as it is with those other get-along ingredients, zucchini and pumpkin. It lacks standards.

If there’s going to be a national baker’s choice in these uncertain times, let it be something bold — not as deeply, fundamentally resolved, as eager to please, as banana bread.

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I want baked goods with brio. A banana, after all, is mush held together by a peel. We can do better, here in the produce capital of the known universe. Strawberry shortcake has its rich, gooey elements, true, but a good shortcake has texture and layers of flavor, and a good berry has that acid bite. Any berry beats a banana, I’d say, as does a tart plum, a crisp apple, a Meyer lemon. For that matter, dark chocolate is more dynamic than a banana.

Then again, lack of complexity may be the key to banana bread’s popularity. It reminds us of a simpler time, when all we required of a sweet quick bread was that it be sweet and quick — and a nice template for those chocolate chips, which might be what people are secretly after.

Some of you have embraced another kind of bread-baking since March, turning to sourdough, a seemingly more appropriate choice for hard times. It has the pioneer spirit going for it, which banana bread emphatically does not. Bread is the staff of life, and sourdough doesn’t even require the yeast nobody can find, just flour, water and time. As hardy, as resilient, as it gets.

But sourdough is perhaps too much of a challenge. Sourdough starters require attention, like a house pet. They have to be fed and measured and fed some more; they’ll do what you ask of them as long as you keep up your part of the bargain. Starter is a serious commitment.

The pet analogy isn’t random. Every year, pet-rescue groups bemoan the post-Christmas glut of puppies and kittens and bunnies that land at rescue operations because people fell in love with the idea of having a pet, which is far different from having to walk one in the rain or, worse, realizing too late that you should’ve.

Once we can walk into a grocery store again without a second thought, I worry that little jars of sourdough starter will start to show up curbside, abandoned, the reality of upkeep far more burdensome than the survivalist fantasy. Not quite a narrative for our time, either. And at fewer than 58,700,000 search results, sourdough places a distant second to banana bread in the virus bake-a-thon.

Surely we can do better. If we are strong enough to do without haircuts and brunch out, to home-school our children and respect social distance when all we want is a hug, then surely we are strong enough to turn our backs on banana bread.

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If you lack that strength of purpose — if, say, you’re reading this on an overcrowded beach somewhere — then go ahead. Have another slice.

Karen Stabiner is the West Coast editor of the Counter.


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