But it might finally get me to read Thomas Pynchon's legendarily difficult book
Gravity’s Rainbow is well known for being a slippery read: At least one of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize jurors couldn’t get more than a third of the way through, and that was literally his job. The scene in Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling novel that loses me every damn time is the Banana Breakfast. If you’re unfamiliar with it, let me set the stage. Near the end of World War II, Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice whips up a dizzying array of dishes for his comrades in arms with the monster bananas he grows on a London rooftop, including
It's marvelous, ludicrous writing, but it’s also the point at which I abandon the novel completely. I’ve trucked through Pynchon’s V., The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, Inherent Vice, no sweat—doesn't matter. I’ve jackknifed a dozen times now, and it’s deeply embarrassing, for the Banana Breakfast scene is also pretty much the first one in the book. It’s on page 11.
After some soul-searching, I concluded that the only way past my reader’s block (which my English degree nagged at me to Kool-Aid-Man through) was a pilgrimage. I’d imagine that weird breakfast into reality, pausing to give each potassium-rich moment its due, and then continue: Onward! Upward! So I conferred with some folks about bananas.
I was skeptical of Pirate’s homebrewing arrangement, but it’s a plausible way to produce banana-based mead, according to Wild Blossom Meadery’s Greg Fischer, who happened to be among the banana plantations in the Canary Islands when I described it to him. That is, assuming you could get your hands on a good wine yeast and had a lot of that wild honey: “You don’t want it to be too dry, so you have to add some sweetness back after fermentation.” The mead-makers at Michigan’s B. Nektar Meadery, the home of a banana-vanilla-cinnamon mead inspired by Bananas Foster, told me that you could serve a mead up with a recipe like Pirate’s in as little as six months, but it would be much better with at least a year of aging.
Gary Glass, director of the American Homebrewers Association, agreed on that point; summer to winter “would be sufficient time to ferment the honey and fruit into an alcohol-containing beverage. Most meads do improve with age, so it may not have been in prime condition [at Pirate’s place].” Three out of three mead sources would welcome it at breakfast: “Banana mead sounds better than orange juice to me,” said Glass, “though [it’s] probably best left for a weekend breakfast, as mead in the morning may not lead to the most productive day at work.”
For the portion of the feast in which I imagined myself actually attempting to create “mashed bananas molded in the shape of a British lion rampant”, I looked to an artist moonlighting as a recipe author—Salvador Dalí, whose surrealist cookbook, like Gravity’s Rainbow, was published in 1973. This was weirdly disappointing: though Dalí’s cookbook brings the freaky in descriptions of dishes like avocado toast (“First you have to prepare the brains.”) and “frog cream,” the only banana recipe is a fairly milquetoast banana pie with a shortbread crust. Meh.
I then texted my sister and brother-in-law, Los Angeles-based artists who’ve collaborated on many a high-concept food project: "OK, so I need your artistic advice on building a lion out of bananas." They quizzed me on factors of longevity and stability, whether I would pulp the bananas or leave them intact, and how I felt about wheat paste and “smelly polymer clay.” “Russian banquets of the 1800s, oddly, would be a good place to start,” my brother-in-law noted. “Maybe reference a hippie natural Play-Doh recipe,” said my sister. “What about squeezing it out like frosting onto wax paper and propping that up vertically when dry?”
Then they sent me a link to a massive wall plaque mold. "Get the mold. Make the mixture. Let it dry. Done. Don’t forget 'mold release' spray." At that point I realized that I was not, as Winston Churchill would say, the lion; I didn’t have the heart to splurge on a banana project that, if not straight-up inedible, would probably be gastrointestinally devastating.
To consider bananas in a savory context, I called on Jill Donenfeld, whose Better on Toast cookbook features a avocado-banana-coconut-almond-feta combination that ambushed me in the best possible way at a café popup a few weeks ago. “First of all,” she said ”[the Banana Breakfast] sounds like my kind of mob scene. That banana croissant sounds divine. When I lived in Madagascar, we preserved bananas with sugar to make banana jam. That, in a French pastry... SUREMENT, C’EST MAGNIFIQUE.” Could she enjoy a completely banana-based meal? “Certainly... especially were I cooking it myself.” Could she think of a dish in which she absolutely could not imagine banana working? “I can’t,” she said. “I wonder if you could make banana pasta. I’d love a banana carpaccio. And that’d be so easy.”
Slade Rushing, executive chef at Brennan’s, a longtime New Orleans brunch temple, told me that Ella Brennan inspired both classic dishes such as Filet Stanley—steak with bananas, horseradish sauce, and red wine and mushroom sauce—and, more recently, an omelet with sauteed bananas and crab meat. “Ella was known to enjoy scrambled eggs with bananas,” Rushing explained.
For the sexiest component of Banana Breakfast—that is, of course, the “bananas flamed in ancient brandy”—I turned again to Chef Rushing. Brennan’s introduced Bananas Foster—bananas braised in butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, banana liqueur, then set ablaze with rum—in 1951, and the world has clamored for it ever since (the restaurant sold around 40,000 orders last year and fires up 60 orders during a typical brunch service).
Why rum and liqueur in place of brandy? Co-creator Chef Paul Blangé, a Dutchman, “tried to use brandy, but Ella wanted to use rum,” Rushing said. “She was right, in my opinion: Rum is made from molasses, sugarcane, and brown sugar is unrefined sugar, sugar that has that molasses in it, and as a chef you always try to fortify the flavors of a dish by surrounding it with its kinfolk, if you will, its cousins and sisters.You don’t want to use anything that’s ridiculously expensive, because with all the brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter, it might be a waste of time. Like, I wouldn’t use a ’47 Châteauneuf-du-Pape to make veal stock when I could do it with a La Vieille Ferme.” Whatever one chooses, he said, “If you do this at home for friends, they will be blown away. They’ll think you’re Jacques Pepin.”
A few weeks pass as I contemplate the many faces of Banana Breakfast before meeting a few in person. One Sunday morning, I grumble awake and feel it in my bones: it’s B-B Day.
My old immersion blender whirs through banana, vanilla, milk, and ice for Pirate’s banana frappés with a frightened-sow squeal. A pinch o’ nutmeg, and there we have it, the most wholesome thing that’s happened before eight in the morning at my house in, okay, ever. I offer one to my husband, Joe, and feel virtuous; this introduction is pedestrian, but it’s comforting. I would coat all the booze-corroded stomachs of the Lower East Side... Then, a nod to the dénouement: I shear dust from the back of our home bar, round up Giffard Banane du Brésil and an orphaned finger of Puységur Bas Armagnac (Chef Slade and Ella, forgive me). Guilty and a bit short on armagnac, I set aside a splash of Ron Zacapa XO (Ron Zacapa XO, forgive me). Butter and sugar relax into a pan, and I promise Joe I won’t set our kitchen on fire again. Whoomp. Bananas and warm sauce spread over vanilla ice cream in an old bowling trophy. The rum serrates the edge of the butterscotch, sweet Christ, from here on out we’re burning everything.
The little golden woman in the middle of my dish, forever mid-throw—girl, I feel you—regains her ankles as I finish the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten. The trick with Pynchon, it seems, is to set yourself a place at the table.