Cranberry Banana Muffins

Cranberry-Banana-Bread-Muffins-9.jpg

If you were to come over to my house, open the freezer, and look into the side-door, you would find frozen bananas. Not a couple of stray frozen half-moons scattered about, but many, stacked tightly together like a brick wall, a freezer door packed to capacity with black bananas in various stages of decomposition. Some recognizably plump and cylindrical, others small, wrinkly and mangled. As far as I know, bananas don’t “go bad” once you store them in the freezer - though my frozen banana tower is evidence of my willingness to test that theory. 

I like to think that I’m not a picky eater, but I do require my fruit to be just the right texture. I like bananas on the verge of being ripe, completely yellow but still firm. Once they start to soften and brown they go straight into the freezer. I don’t like the intense sweet flavour or the gooey texture of a blackening banana. Consequently, one or two - and sometimes more - bananas from every bunch eventually find their way into my freezer. Why then, do I keep buying bananas? It seems irrational. But whatever guilt I might otherwise feel about inevitable banana wastage is tempered both by their inexpensiveness compared to most other fruit, and their potential for a second-life as banana bread. Given the popularity of bananas - the world’s most commonly eaten fruit - I’m probably not the only one who treats banana bread as a kitchen waste fail-safe.

All your Bananas are Belong to Us

My last recipe post - Peanut noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil - emphasized the importance, for those of us who belong to a dominant culture, of being mindful of how we encounter other people’s food. Of paying attention to the attitudes and assumptions we bring to these encounters and the ways in which we express our reactions and preferences. In writing about banana muffins, such a consideration seems unnecessary. Unlike noodle dishes, banana quick-breads feel like “my food.” Banana loaves and muffins are a staple in many working and middle-class Anglo-North American homes and have been since chemical leaveners became available to home cooks in the 1930s. The ubiquity of the banana in North America makes it easy to overlook that they are not native plants. Banana plants require year-long frost-free temperatures and thus cannot be grown, commercially, very far from the equator and North Americans only began to eat them regularly in the late 1800s. How then did banana bread earn its place as one of the fundamentals of North American home baking? 

Bananas taste good, but no more so than other, less popular, fruits. They are valuable nutritionally for their potassium. But many other fruits and vegetables, including some that are suited to Northern climates, such as potatoes, spinach, beets, winter squash and white beans, contain as much, or more, of this essential mineral. Explaining North America’s wholehearted embrace of the banana requires exploring not only the culinary and nutritional properties of the fruit, but also its politics. Food is never “just food.” Food is always also cultural and political. Bananas illustrate this point in an unusually literal way. 

Cranberry-Banana-Bread-Muffins-8.jpg

Countless Western military interventions into the Caribbean, South and Central America over the 20th century were motivated, at least in part, by the desire to maintain control over the outrageously profitable Banana export trade. The CIA-led overthrow and exile of land-reform friendly and democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz, in the 1950s; the 1961 bay of pigs invasion which sought, in part, to reverse Fidel Castro’s decision to nationalize banana and sugar plantations; the 1928 Colombian banana massacre, in which thousands of striking United Fruit workers and their families were murdered by the Colombian government, under threat of the US military, as they left a Sunday church service. Such interventions were designed to protect the financial interests of Western-owned fruit companies and to ensure that bananas remained the cheapest fruit available to Western consumers.  

The banana’s popularity rests therefore on forms of colonial, and neocolonial, power. Western power to control land, resources, agricultural practices and labour in banana growing regions as well manipulate mass markets of food consumption. Such power at the point of banana production was acquired through deals struck between mostly American-owned fruit companies and the governments of the Caribbean, South and Central America. The particulars of these deals varied, but they formed a common pattern: fruit companies were granted concessions - access to land and resources in the form of subsidies, monopolies or ownership and exemptions from taxes and duties - in exchange for constructing infrastructure such as transportation and communication networks, like railroads and telegraph lines, and electricity. Though governments sought out these deals for the development they would bring, such development came at the expense of the environment and biodiversity, labor rights, the economic viability of small-scale growers, local democracy and, ultimately, national economic sovereignty.

Cranberry-Banana-Muffins-Dip-1.jpg

Influence over banana consumption required power of a different kind: symbolic control through marketing and cultural representation. As concessions were secured allowing for the cheap production of bananas on an enormous scale, fruit companies needed to ensure that demand matched supply. They created publicity and education departments that produced campaigns designed to sell more bananas by manipulating their symbolic value (Soluri, 2005). In both marketing and popular culture, Banana imagery was used to symbolize the cultural inferiority, or barbarism, of the peoples of the tropics, a tactic that promoted banana consumption while symbolically legitimizing the exploitative practices of the banana export industry by suggesting that it brought progress and civilization to backward peoples. 

For instance, early travel literature and popular culture references used the relative fertility of tropical lands and the immense productivity of the banana to suggest that the people of the tropics were both lazy and uninspired. Unlike farmers throughout the history of Western agriculture, who had to labor intensely to eke out a living from dry lands and wheat fields, the inhabitants of banana growing regions merely had to walk out of their huts and pick the fruit off of the trees. In part, this reasoning makes virtue out of necessity. It is also a misconception. One that was frequently made in colonial encounters with indigenous agroecological practices. Early Western explorers to banana growing regions misinterpreted what they saw because they viewed the lands they were “discovering” through the lens of their own culture, and when they did not see their own agricultural practices reflected back at them, they assumed none existed.

Further Reading:

Banana Muffins Do not Have to be Boring.

I always have more frozen black bananas than freshly baked banana breads. The truth is, I don’t love quick bread. I get its appeal, but I find it sort of boring and don’t want to spend my baking time on boring things. In an effort to make more interesting use of my frozen bananas, I created this cranberry banana muffin recipe.

Cranberry-Banana-Bread-Muffins-11.jpg

The first addition to a basic banana quick bread recipe is the cranberries. Cranberries are one of my favourite berries. Their use should not be limited to holiday-food. I’m always looking for ways to use them, and fresh or frozen cranberries work beautifully in a quick bread. The second addition is the streusel. Making a streusel does add an extra step to the muffin baking process, which may put off those looking for a one-bowl super-quick recipe, but it adds a crunchy texture to the muffins, and makes them look fancier. Finally, I often find baked goods recipes to be too sweet. For these muffins I lowered the sugar in the base recipes I used and added more tart flavour, with the cranberries of course, but also with lemon zest in the batter and lemon juice in the streusel.  

I experimented a bit with changing the baking time. I’ve read that starting muffins on a higher temperature and then lowering the oven results in a higher rise. When I tried this technique, I did notice that the muffins rose a bit higher, but I also found that the higher temperatures dried out the streusel and the muffins overall were not as moist - but the technique might be worth trying if you leave out the streusel.


Cranberry Banana Muffins

Makes: 12 Muffins

CRANBERRY BANANA MUFFINS ON GREY KITCHEN LINEN WITH MILK IN BACKGROUND

Ingredients:
    Muffins
  • 3/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 3/4 cups cake flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tb lemon zest
  • 4 small (or 3 large) bananas, mashed
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted
  • 1 cup cranberries, chopped & tossed in spoonful sugar

  • Pumpkin Seed Streusel
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, chopped
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tb granulated sugar
  • 1 tb brown sugar
  • 1/2 tb lemon juice
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 2 1/2 tb unsalted butter, melted
  • Pinch of salt

Instructions:
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Insert paper liners into a muffin tin, or coat the tin with shortening.
  2. To make Streusel: in a small bowl, combine pumpkin seeds, flour, sugars and baking powder. Add lemon juice and melted butter. Combine with a fork until the streusel holds together in clumps. Set aside.
  3. In a second small bowl, toss 1 cup of chopped cranberries with a spoonful of sugar. Set aside.
  4. In a medium bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, lemon zest and cinnamon. Whisk together and set aside.
  5. In a large bowl, combine mashed bananas, sugar, egg, vanilla and melted butter. Add the bowl of dry ingredients, mix together until combined. Be careful not to over-mix. Fold in the chopped cranberries.
  6. Divide the batter into the muffin cups. Each one should hold about 1/3 cup of batter. Sprinkle the streusel over the tops of each muffin.
  7. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the streusel begins to brown and a toothpick inserted into the centre of one of the muffins comes out clean. Let muffins sit in tin for 5 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool.

Sources: muffins adapted from All Recipes, streusel adapted from Food and Wine.

Peanut Noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil

Peanut Noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil - The Maker Makes

I was 6 or 7 the first time I ate Chinese food. It was the sort of Chinese-Canadian restaurant found in any small Canadian town. Décor reminiscent of a hotel conference room mixed with accent pieces that signal Western notions of “the orient” - painted fans, sprawling dragons, vibrant reds and golds. A menu divided between the ostensibly Chinese cuisine of combo plates, fried rice and egg rolls, each coated in a glistening sauce - soy, plum, or a bright magenta sweet and sour - and a Canadian cuisine of burgers, fries and hot sandwiches. For dinner I received a combo-plate of fried rice and sweet and sour chicken balls. For dessert, vanilla ice-cream. It arrived at the table, three round scoops in a martini-like dessert glass, with a single green mint leaf sitting on top. To the amusement of the adults, I began consuming my dessert by plucking the leaf off of the ice cream and eating it - not realizing, of course, that it was meant as a garnish. Eating leaves was not a habit of mine, the odd iceberg lettuce aside, but I was excited by the experience of difference we were consuming. The bright colours, the shiny figurines, the intricate patterns on the blue and white china; it was an ornamental abundance unlike anything I’d seen before. Perhaps I assumed that this was how Chinese people ate their desserts, with a tiny leaf on top, and I was willing to give it a try. 

Peanut Sauce - The Maker Makes

My willingness to “give other people’s food a try” has grown enormously since that time and I’m not alone. It used to be that fine food in North America was narrowly defined as classical French cuisine. But, today, to have "sophisticated" food tastes almost requires developing a palate for a wide range of the world’s cuisines. This, what some sociologists refer to as "cultural omnivorousness," has changed my everyday cooking. Sometimes, I attempt to cook relatively authentic traditional recipes from cuisines around the world, but more often I engage in a less formal piecemeal incorporation of the flavours and ingredients of other people’s food. Chief among the additions that I have made to my culinary arsenal in recent years are noodles. When I am too tired or busy to plan and cook a meal, I’ll make noodles. They are fast, can be paired with any combination of vegetables and topped with an endless variety of sauces. But, beyond their convenience, they have become, for me, a comfort food. I don’t make them only when I am short on time and need something to eat, I’ve been known to make a bowl of noodles even when my fridge is stocked with leftovers, I make them when I am feeling sad or stressed or overwhelmed and just want to curl up on the couch with something tasty. 

Sichuan Peppercorns - The Maker Makes

Comfort food, though, is usually defined by its status as “your food.” It is the food that you grew up eating, especially that which you ate on rare or special occasions. The familiarity and association with important moments in your life and the people you shared them with are essential to the feeling of comfort you get when you eat it. For many who grew up in a world of processed foods, this means that comfort food is not always the most interesting or flavourful or healthy or even the most food-like. Kraft dinner, hot dogs with a rainbow of condiments, kraft singles, taco kits, and McDonalds may all qualify. Fast food is particularly suited to the comfort food genre because it is, by definition, standardized. Every time you eat it, it tastes exactly the same as you remember it tasting. Comfort food doesn’t need to taste good, objectively speaking, it just needs to remind you of something good. Noodles, however, are not my food. To me, noodles are “other people’s food” - a phrasing I first encountered on Sporkful’s podcast series about food and cultural appropriation. How can other people’s food come to function as “your” comfort food? And, what are the implications of Anglo-North Americans adopting other people’s food in this way? 

Sichuan Chili Oil - The Maker Makes

These are questions that I have been thinking through a lot. To answer them, I need to listen to the voices of those “other people” to whom this food belongs. As one part of this effort, I have been binge-listening to the fantastic podcast Racist Sandwich. One thing that stands out about its interviews, is the frequency with which guests of Asian descent speak about the ways in which, as children, they were made to feel embarrassed, alienated or ashamed by their white friend’s reactions to their food, and the complex feelings that arose when, some time after those early experiences, white people began to realize that Asian foods taste good (don’t take my word for it, listen to the podcast!). The history of Western encounters with Chinese food echoes these experiences. Early 18th century European and American traders visiting China, some of the first Westerners to sample its food, approached it with disgust and a strong sense of their own culinary superiority. Like the white American school children in the stories of Racist Sandwich, they complained about the strong smells of Chinese food and the unfamiliar form it took, of many small dishes with finely chopped ingredients; a stark contrast with the giant slabs of meat and relatively subtle flavours and smells that characterize most Western European cuisines. For these early encounters, the feelings were likely mutual. But they occurred on a relatively level playing field of power and the same cannot be said about the Western encounters with Chinese food that would occur later on Western Soil. 

Peanut Noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil - The Maker Makes

The history of immigration to the settler colonies of Canada and the United States, can be viewed as a succession of additions to the bottom of a racial hierarchy. Each new immigrant group taking its place at the bottom, performing the most difficult labour, inhabiting the worst living conditions, and experiencing the most discrimination and racism. And if you compare the history of North American food culture with this history of immigration, you will see that mainstream Anglo-North American culture tends to appreciate other people’s food, only as discrimination wanes for the group to whom that food belongs, as another group takes its place at the bottom, or as overt racist treatment of that group becomes less socially acceptable. It’s not a coincidence that only as an adult did I learn that sweet and sour chicken balls are not really "Chinese food." Patterns of familiarity with and appreciation of “other people’s food,” are connected in important ways to shifting forms of racial inequality.

Peanut Noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil - The Maker Makes

I heard someone say recently that being an ally is a process, not an identity. Which means, I suppose, that a commitment to allyship requires becoming comfortable with a permanent state of “in process.” In some ways this is similar to performing a creative skill like writing; the messy and uncomfortable feeling of being-in-progress, of not knowing exactly how your efforts will turn out, or if you are doing it right, then doing it not-quite-right and attempting to do it better. This is how you know you’re on the right track. In a former recipe post I wrote flippantly of noodles, “where have they been all my life.” Well, former me, they were in the bowls of many, many, other people - for centuries. I didn’t invent the noodle, and if I had encountered this dish as a child in the 90s, I might have turned up my nose, like the white school children in so many stories on Racist Sandwich. I'd like to think not, but it’s not possible to say with certainty. I think the important thing when we are encountering, eating and cooking other people’s food is to engage in that mindful process of listening, thinking, and adjusting - so that we can be alert for those times when the way that we react to and consume the cultural products of others, an inevitability in a world where difference exists, might contribute to the reproduction of oppression, racism and inequality. 

Further reading (and listening):


Peanut Noodles with Sichuan Chili Oil

A PLATE OF PEANUT NOODLES WITH SICHUAN CHILI OIL AND VEGETABLES

Ingredients:
    Sichuan Chili oil
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 tsp red Sichuan peppercorns
  • 5 tb red chili flakes
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3 chives, chopped
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 inch slice of ginger
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 tsp low sodium soy sauce

  • Peanut Sauce
  • ¼ cup peanut butter
  • 3 tablespoons miso
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • ½ cup + 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Sichuan chili oil

  • Noodles & Toppings
  • 2 Servings Farkay (pictured), Udon or Rice Noodles
  • 1/3 Cucumber, julienned
  • 1/2 Bell Pepper, julienned
  • 2 Baby bok choi, washed and sliced into strips
  • Handful of Peanuts, chopped
  • Sesame Seeds

Instructions:
  1. To make the Chili Oil: Add 2 tablespoons of the red chili flakes to a small bowl. Set aside.
  2. In a small pot over medium heat, add the vegetable oil, garlic, chives, star anise, bay leaf, ginger and the remaining 3 tablespoons of red chili flakes. Add the Sichuan peppercorns separately, in a way that allows them to be easily removable,* [I use a tea diffuser, placed inside the pot, you could also use something like a cheesecloth or spice bag]. Bring the oil to a simmer, stirring frequently, cook for 1-2 minutes, until the garlic begins to brown. Remove from heat and stir in the soy sauce.
  3. Transfer the Sichuan peppercorns to the bowl with the chili flakes and pour in the oil mixture. Allow to sit at room temperature for at least 2-3 hours. Remove the Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, bay leaf, ginger and cinnamon stick and store remaining ingredients in the refrigerator.
  4. To make the peanut Sauce: combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Whisk together until blended.
  5. Cook noodles according to package instructions.
  6. To Serve: coat the noodles in the sauce and add desired toppings. Mix together.

*You don’t absolutely have to strain out the Sichuan peppercorns, but I find the sauce tastes gritty if they are left in, like eating dirt. If that texture doesn't bother you, grind the peppercorns in a spice grinder and add to the oil. 

Sources: Peanut Sauce adapted from Pinch of Yum; Sichuan chili oil adapted from Lady and Pups.