I Bought a Vintage Banana Cookbook and Accidentally Opened a Sarcophagus of Horrors
There was once a universe where people thought bananas, boiled ham, mustard, and Velveeta should all be in the same dish.
All photos by the author
Welcome to Best Before, where we unearth recipes from retro cookbooks that were maybe forgotten for a reason.
There are few foods in this world that I avoid: bell peppers, raw clams. Maybe a couple of other slimy things here and there. I just like food, I guess. Salty, bitter, fatty, vegetal, sweet… all god’s children, I shall eat.
Three foods that I have absolutely never had a problem with are cheese, bananas, and ham. (Except for that decade when I was a vegetarian, as far as the latter is concerned. But I now enjoy an occasional slice of sweet n’ smoky pig flesh.) I count cheese and bananas among my favorite foods; starting the morning with a mushy kick of potassium is A+ in my book, and, well, cheese is cheese. IDGAF if it’s a slice of American wedged into a tuna melt or some Brillat Savarin on a rye and raisin cracker, drizzled with orange blossom honey.
This is why my brain malfunctioned a few months ago when I got my hands on a very, very old Chiquita Banana’s Recipe Book, procured through my frankly quite problematic habit of buying weird shit on eBay out of sheer curiosity. (Shoutout to the 1995 issue of Playgirl that I paid $80 for just to see the full nude spread of the now-deceased Peter Steele of Type O Negative.) Smithsonian magazine describes this 1947 cookbook as “a strategic attempt to market the still ‘exotic’ banana and make it palatable for the entire American family.” (The magazine also points out some other unsavory elements of the book, such as its anthropomorphized “tropicalized Latina” mascot and glossing-over of the United Fruit Company’s labor issues, but I’m here to talk about the recipes. Well, one recipe.)
The banana became popular, all right (it is actually the most popular fruit in the world), but I can guarantee you that it wasn’t because of this cookbook. Aside from “Foster” or “flambéd” or “bread” there are few ways I could even think of “cooking” a banana at all, but within this very curious cookbook, I found a recipe that caused me such horror that I absolutely had to make it.
And as you might guess, it contained these three foods that I happened to quite like. Yes, it combined bananas, cheese, and ham. Like, touching each other. Warm. Mixed together. And this wasn’t, say, some thinly sliced banana with Brie and prosciutto. (That sounds like it might work.) This………………………………………………………
Yes. We all know that from the 50s through the 70s, indentured housewives enacted their undiagnosed anxiety disorders, unending boredom, and general social repression on their families by preparing all sorts of culinary horrors that husbands and children had to pretend to enjoy or risk shattering the eerie, Pleasantville-like shininess of the nuclear family dynamic. Here, Bobby; have some Liver Sausage Pineapple. No? How about a big scoop of Jell-O with shrimp frosting?
It was in this universe that some surely (and rightfully) deranged woman came to invent this recipe: Ham Banana Rolls with Cheese Sauce. Or, as I came to call it, the Terrible Banana Thing.
Here’s what a person requires to lovingly prepare this truly evil recipe for someone they hate with the fire of Satan’s morning breath: four thin slices of boiled ham. “Prepared mustard.” (Don’t you go making your own, now! That might ruin this delicious dish!) Four firm bananas. (You are instructed to use “all-yellow or slightly green-tipped” [shudder] bananas.) A tablespoon and a half of butter or margarine. For the cheese sauce, you will simply mix American cheese with more butter, a bit of flour, and some milk.
When you lay the ingredients out in front of you, the horror that is about to ensue becomes clear. You will be eating a banana inexplicably spread with mustard, wrapped in boiled ham, and positively drowned in gluey American cheese. As you create a wholly unnecessary roux in which to add the Velveeta, you may ask yourself how you ended up seven years into a career as a food writer, standing over a pot of processed cheese that you are about to dump onto a pile of meat-wrapped, slightly unripe bananas and then consume out of self-hatred and a need to entertain others through experimental idiocy. (Am I starting to sound like that Talking Heads song?)
So I made it. I made the Terrible Banana Thing. And I tried it.
I’m sure you’re wondering how it tasted, even though, my dear, you already know the answer to that question. The cheese formed a cling-wrap-like coating throughout the inside of my mouth. The ham tasted like boiled ham, which is to say, like something I do not choose to eat voluntarily unless I’m at a craft services table and the only other options are Red Delicious apples and bad grapes. The bananas couldn’t save themselves. The dish was not greater than the sum of its parts. In conclusion: This is not something I will be replicating in the future.
When I was a kid, my childhood best friend and I used to make a thing called Hot Dog Salad. It was cut up hot dogs with sliced Claussen dill spears, thrown together with lettuce, dressed with pickle juice straight from the jar. It was fantastic. We also made a thing called Magic Whip, which was canned whipped cream mixed with food coloring and cocoa powder. That, too, was very nice to eat.
The Terrible Banana Thing does not fall into the same gustatory categories as these dishes, despite their seeming shared creative process (i.e., throw together some random stuff in your kitchen and see if it tastes good). The Terrible Banana Thing is sadistic, albeit not as sadistic as this photo of another dish from Chiquita Banana’s Recipe Book:
Anyway, setting aside my trauma from the Terrible Banana Thing, there are some legitimately good recipes to be found in the CBRB. For instance, a very nice-sounding banana chocolate cream pie. I recommend that you make that. When banana and chocolate combine—as long as you don’t add cheese, mustard, or ham—you really, actually can’t go wrong.