personal essay

Why Banana Bread Is the Official Comfort Food of the Coronavirus Quarantine

published Apr 2, 2020
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Surely, you’ve noticed it: On social media, feeds that not long ago overflowed with pictures of elaborate restaurant outings and dreamy far-flung travels have transformed seemingly overnight. In the age of coronavirus, the endless scroll is instead saturated with images of trapped-inside baking projects, mingled with musings on how to get the most mileage out of dwindling pantry staples. Amidst it all, one baked good appears with particular frequency: banana bread

Banana bread has always been popular, but something feels different — more important, perhaps? — about these recent loaves. Why do the quarantined masses seek out banana bread with greater fervor than chocolate cake or apple pie? Even savory go-tos like macaroni and cheese fail to stack up. This isn’t just in our collective imagination: It’s backed up by Google Trends, which shows a soaring spike of interest that leaves other daily favorites in the dust.

To understand banana bread’s new role in these strange times, we turned to all manner of bakers — from kitchen novices to professional chefs — and asked: What does banana bread stand for when you’re stuck in quarantine? The most common response might be the most obvious. Unlike other foods, when bananas go limp and mushy, they can be repurposed. Enter banana bread, which is actually improved upon by overripe ‘nanas forgotten in the fruit bowl. 

“We’ve been buying more food, which means there’s more opportunity for things to go bad,” said Ori Zohar, co-founder of spice company Burlap & Barrel. Zohar is currently holed up with his family in Baltimore, MD, and banana bread is often on the menu. “Luckily we can save the brown bananas a trip to the compost bin.”

It’s a similar story for Betsy Beyer, a homemaker and volunteer who splits her time between Montclair, NJ, and Asheville, NC. “I’ve been spending a lot of time considering how wasteful I’ve been in the past,” she said.

Kyle Hopkins, a Kansas City, MO-based brand ambassador for Boulevard Brewing Company, explained the phenomenon succinctly. “Buying produce is a bit tricky these days,” he said. Bananas, though, are a low-risk purchase. “You eat them fresh or they get overripe and you toss them in the freezer until you have enough to make banana bread.”

Making banana bread as a means of avoiding food waste isn’t a new idea. Although Americans first started eating bananas in the late 19th century, the first banana bread recipe was published by Pillsbury in 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression, another period of historic belt-tightening, as a means of stretching a week’s groceries. Perhaps we’re returning to a Depression-era mindset, a premise backed up by the return of victory gardens, a.k.a. World War II-era fruit and vegetable plots. That’s admittedly not the most uplifting thought, but there are definite upsides to this way of thinking. For one, it’s luring even self-identified non-bakers into the kitchen. 

Sarah Tosques, an art director in New York City, said that she made the first loaf of her life this week. “As a general rule, I don’t believe in the consumption of bananas or carbs/sweets,” Tosques said. But all of a sudden, something changed. “I don’t know if the pandemic rewired my brain somehow or if bananas and carbs are just primal survival instincts,” she mused. “All of a sudden this week, it seemed like a necessity.”

Marketing manager Christina Mckenzie in Rochester, MI, said she made her first loaf of banana bread in 20 years after going into quarantine. “It’s just something to do beyond watching TV, working, and reading,” she said. “I have completed six books since we’ve been home these last two weeks. I am a busy person, so baking is a way to do something creative without leaving my home.”

Barrett Prendergast, who runs the Los Angeles-based floral design studio Valleybrink Road, said she noticed the same thing after sharing her one-bowl banana bread recipe on her personal Instagram account. It’s proved wildly popular, particularly with non-bakers. Since her original post on March 18, Prendergast said between 8 and 10 people a day make the recipe and tag her in their own posts. “I think that banana bread is usually a forgiving recipe,” she said by way of explanation. “You don’t have to be a great cook or baker to make it with success. Now that so many of us are at home, people who probably don’t cook that often, are turning to the kitchen and baking banana bread is a great place for them to start.”

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

It helps, too, that banana bread is the epitome of comfort food. Allison Poris, a New York City-based public relations professional, said she’s turning to her family’s banana bread recipe in these strange times. “While I’m away from my family, and who knows for how long, it brings me a lot of comfort and makes me feel closer to home — even if I’m miles away,” Poris said. “No one can make banana bread like my mom, so I’m trying to follow in her footsteps and master the craft!”

Even some accomplished cooks are opting for comfort right now. Timothy Hollingsworth, the chef of L.A. fine dining spot Otium, said he’s baking plenty of banana bread at home these days. In the past — particularly when he worked at The French Laundry in the Napa Valley — Hollingsworth might have reinforced his loaves with banana syrup, which he makes by gently cooking bananas in a sous vide. But in quarantine, he’s using his mother’s recipe, which doesn’t call for sous vide anything. “I love hers because it is very straightforward, well-balanced, and moist,” Hollingsworth said. 

Other cooks, however, are leaning into banana bread’s versatility and using it as a canvas for experimentation. After all, even the most perfect recipe can get boring after the fifth go around. Hopkins said he’s been researching how to incorporate beer into his batter, while Poris is swapping traditional flour out for coconut flour and tinkering with a pecan crumble. Zohar is tossing in well-aged dark chocolate, shredded coconut from the back of his pantry, and his company’s sweet and spicy Royal Cinnamon. Elsewhere online, the variety we’re seeing is striking: There are loaves of chocolate chip-studded banana bread. Walnut-enriched banana bread. Banana bread crowned with a crunchy pecan crumble. Elegant, elaborately-styled banana bread and rustic, homey banana bread. You get the idea. 

Others are using epic banana bread baking sessions to keep their kids engaged in the absence of school or childcare. Hopkins said they keep his four-year-old son occupied for a solid (and much-needed) chunk of time. “He loves mashing the bananas and helping measure/pour the other ingredients,” Hopkins said. So agrees New York-based journalist Juliet Izon, who encourages her four-year-old daughter to get in on the banana-baking action. “It’s a fun activity for the whole family and god knows we need to stay occupied,” Izon said.

For others, baking banana bread has taken on a more meditative quality. Theresa Talor, a senior data management consultant in Houston, TX, said that baking banana bread has helped maintain her sanity after being furloughed from her job. “I needed to find a creative hobby that used my hands,” she said. “Baking filled that void, mostly because kneading is therapeutic and carbs are tasty.” Zohar agrees. “In general, cooking feels like an active form of self-care, but even more so in these difficult times,” he said.

But maybe the most striking aspect of the dish’s current allure is this: Baking banana bread feels like an easy-to-reach achievement in a time when we’re all feeling defeated.

“Quarantine has definitely changed the way I think about banana bread,” Hopkins reflected. “Everyone is trying to get by right now and it feels good to use the simple ingredients that we have available to us to make a dish that is both incredibly affordable and outrageously delicious.”

Barrett Prendergast agrees. “I love seeing people getting in the kitchen, being proud of their accomplishment, and having the confidence to share it,” she said. In a way, thanks to the Internet, banana bread has become a nationwide baking project of sorts. “There is so much comfort in community,” she said. “I am grateful to be able to connect with people over something like this.”

Ready to make banana bread? Start here.