Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste


too many Bananas
We eat a lot, and sometimes have a lot left over, too

Earth and Ocean pastry chef Sue McCown's "Drunken Monkey" dessert takes bananas into uncharted territory.

WHEN MY BROTHER died a few years ago, he was survived by his wife, her daughter, five siblings, our parents, two dogs, a house full of art work in various stages of completion, and one 9-by-13-inch baking dish filled with banana pudding. I was, frankly, surprised by this. The creator of a dish called "Bananas Flipper," a flaming arrangement of bananas and ice cream in a fried tortilla cup, my brother was a very creative cook, not known for his banana pudding.

But it was his day off. Like me he was a chef by profession, and like me, he liked to spend his day off in the kitchen. His wife discovered the pudding some time later. One small spoonful had been scooped from the corner of the pan. I think it brought all of us some comfort to know that he took a taste of the pudding before he ran the errand from which he would never return.

I suppose he bought too many bananas. As far as I know, that's the only time anyone ever makes banana pudding. Banana pudding is one of those things that just happens. You don't plan to make it and then go out and buy the bananas; rather, you find yourself with too many bananas and then you make it.

It's a variation on what English cooks call a trifle. You have too much fruit and maybe a little dry cake; so you layer the cake and fruit with custard and there you are: pudding. If you're an American, you're more likely to have Nabisco vanilla wafers than cake, and thanks to the vagaries of that peculiar economy we practice in America, the fruit you're most likely to have too much of is bananas, and so you follow the recipe on the back of the box.

Serves 4
4 miniature bananas
4 2-ounce scoops chocolate sorbet
4 2-ounce scoops raspberry sorbet
4 2-ounce scoops vanilla ice cream
Drizzles of caramel and chocolate sauce, to taste
Chopped nuts and whipped cream, optional

1. Peel the bananas and split each one in half lengthwise. Put the split bananas in bowls or in special dishes if you have them.

2. Plant scoops of each sorbet and ice cream on top of the bananas and drizzle on sauce.

3. Finish each dessert with chopped nuts and whipped cream, as desired. Serve immediately.

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Banana pudding and all those other banana dishes like banana bread and banana ice cream were born out of serendipity when cooks of our grandparents' generation regularly found themselves with a surplus of ripe bananas.

How, one might wonder, did North Americans living in a temperate environment where bananas don't even grow, ever find themselves with too many bananas? Thanks to the efforts of some enterprising capitalists, the fruit has been imported in quantities large enough to make them riotously abundant for over a hundred years. Bananas have in fact, been imported in quantities large enough to make them the most popular fruit in the U.S.

According to a brief history of the fruit compiled by the Chiquita company, it all began with one Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker. He's credited with initiating the importation of bananas in 1870, when he bought 160 bunches in Jamaica and sold them 11 days later in Jersey City. Captain Baker soon partnered with some other shippers and the enterprise shortly became the United Fruit Co., which eventually evolved into Chiquita Brands International. Chiquita herself, modeled pretty obviously after movie star Carmen Miranda, was born in 1944 as part of a promotion to teach consumers how to ripen bananas properly: "and never put them in the re-fri-ger-a-tor," she sang to a Calypso beat. (Her creator, artist Dik Browne, also drew the original Campbell Soup kids and "Hagar the Horrible.")

At Dole, banana historians say bananas "were officially introduced to Americans at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876." Each banana was wrapped in foil and sold for 10 cents - a considerable sum in 1876. But a steady supply and a somewhat indifferent demand drove the price down so that now, one and a quarter centuries later, a banana still doesn't cost too much more than a dime.

Most bananas are consumed au naturel by people who no doubt believe the phrase "Quite Possibly The World's Perfect Food," a slogan introduced by Chiquita in 1989. Possibly, I guess, if the world's perfect food is soft, omnipresent and insipid. I think bananas might be the perfect baby food. Both my boys made the transition from breast milk to solid food on the banana bridge, but as soon as they came to their senses, they started eating other things. Personally, I'd rather eat almost anything than a plain banana. I would in fact go out of my way to eat a banana split once in a while.

I especially like a split made with several kinds of sorbet and those weird, sweet-tart little bananas they call "apple bananas." If for no other reason, I prefer those bananas because they are small and they disappear quickly. But most of the bananas on the market are of the "Grand Nain" variety, sometimes referred to as the "musa nana," or else they're the huge, bland "Cavendish" variety, or something similar. Smaller varieties reflect that ever-present consumer interest in anything rare or hard to come by.

Pastry chefs especially appreciate the diminutive proportions of miniature bananas. At Earth and Ocean restaurant, executive pastry chef Sue McCown uses them for an over-the-top Miss Chiquita-style dessert she calls "Drunken Monkey." Fashioned from one small banana which Sue calls a "plantation" banana - a term unknown to retailers - this twist on the traditional banana split is probably not reproducible at home. Certainly not at my home.

McCown starts with a baby banana, splits it in half without peeling it, then marinates it overnight in Meyer's dark rum, a squeeze of fresh lime juice and a little brown sugar. Then she whips up some homemade sorbets, chocolate and coconut, and some curlicue cookies made from lipstick-red tuile batter. Finally, she grills the half bananas on a panini iron, turning them once or twice to make "sexy grill marks," and puts everything together on a plate in a series of jaunty angles that only pastry chefs seem able to manage.

"We taste with our eyes first," insists McCown. "That's why I take the time to make those sexy grill marks on the bananas, and the curly red cookies."

If my brother were here, I'd take him right down to Earth and Ocean and order one of those Drunken Monkeys. As an artist, as a chef, he would love it. One of his last works, barely finished when he died, was something he had described over the phone as a "parrot dactyl." It was a kind of sculpture, a mobile really, of a prehistoric bird made of wooden dowels and canvas. When he died, the paint on its wings was still wet. I'm not sure which thing he was working on last, the banana pudding or the parrot dactyl, but both of them tell me that he would appreciate a colorful, creative dessert made out of bananas.

The rest of us, those who are not my brother the artist, or Sue McCown, might have to settle for a regular old banana split.

Greg Atkinson, Canlis executive chef, is the author of "In Season" (1997) and "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (1999) from Sasquatch Books.

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