5 things our grandmothers did with bananas (that we don’t do now!)

“Forty-four times more nutritious than a potato!” Laura delves into the horrors and delights of vintage banana recipes.

There is a lot that could (and has) been said about bananas. They have a cultural history loaded with vastly differing attitudes towards race and sexualities that could (and has) filled up many chapters. They have also become iconic as a comedic prop – having the perfect combination funny, somewhat suggestive shape and that slippery peel have made them ripe (!) punchline material.

banana cartoon

If you have ever perused cookbooks from the first half of the 20th century you will have noticed something else about bananas—they apparently mystified Western cooks. There are whole books dedicated to ‘how to serve bananas’ and some of the solutions are enough to make the most ardent banana fan shudder.


To be fair, I think that most Westerners had a fairly good idea about what to do with bananas — you peeled them and ate them raw. After cereal was invented you cut them up and put them on your cornflakes. When they went brown you baked them into cakes or banana bread. But the 20th century was the time of the test kitchen — with magazine editors and marketing boards challenging their home economics expert to come up with something new and interesting. So what did the professionals suggest?

Unknown couple drink beer and peel bananas

We’re Jammin’

 It is not something that you see on the supermarket shelves today but in the 1930s newspapers and magazines were awash with recipes for banana jam. In the Commonwealth bananas must have been relatively cheap because they are often offered up as a thrifty solution for home cooks. Often heralded as a sort of wonder food with the same nutritional benefits as potatoes and even beef steaks they were seen as something you could offer invalids and children and which helped your budget go further. As preserves were part of the thrifty Depression-era lifestyle banana jam was often suggested for when ‘stores were depleted’.


The most common recipe involves oranges and lemons and a good whack of sugar. Not having any oranges on hand I though I’d try another version which appeared in a March 1932 edition of the Auckland Star. Scaling the recipe down I ended up with:

1930s Banana Jam

6 bananas

3 pears

450 gm sugar

juice of two lemons

a tsp of ground ginger

Boiled up on the stove this made about three small jars worth.

*Prepare to a soundtrack of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? on a crackly valve radio and your neighbours rickety kids making a palaver out of having whooping-cough.


Bananas not being the cheap fruit the once were there probably won’t be a huge comeback for banana jam (I guess there would have to be a huge comeback of jam-making in general as well) but I recommend trying this one out sometime. It would make a nice cake filling. It is very sweet, but it goes very nicely with peanut butter on toast. Elvis would approve.

Soup’s Up!

I know! ‘Banana Soup’ sounds like the name of that kid’s book you are tempted to surreptitiously throw out because you have been forced to read it too many damn times, but this was actually a serious suggestion. My Whitcombe’s Everyday Cookery (which is undated but probably from the late 30s) gives a recipe that hints at this outlandish dish’s origin.


The inclusion of curry powder and Worcestershire sauce (which was the result of an early English attempt at making a curry flavoured sauce) tells us that this is an abortive attempt at making a banana curry. Banana curry recipes are, of course, many and delicious in Indian cookery, but for some reason English cooks instead of asking for an actual recipe tried replicating them at home without the knowledge or proper ingredients. I’ve seen one recipe that involved Marmite. I’m not recreating these because wasting food is a sin and I’d rather eat a proper curry.

Something Fishy

As with the above mentioned banana curry there are many delightful ways to cook bananas and fish together. Despite this, magazines and cookbooks from this era tended to focus on tinned fish like anchovies and sardines, coming up with new! and surprising! ways to combine them with bananas. Bananas were often offered as a ‘fun way’ to ‘jazz up’ your cold salmon or shrimp ‘shape’. In this era of cookery a ‘shape’ was a gelatinous mix of aspic and the featured ingredient set in a mould.


Sardine ‘boats’ were also a popular suggestion at this time. So simple to prepare they simply involved cutting your bananas lengthwise, arranging them on a plate, gently resting a tinned sardine on each banana half and suppressing your gag reflex while you hoped others were able to do the same.


My favourite fish and banana combo are ‘Banana Toasts’ from the NZ Herald in October 1932.

Banana Toast

This sounds like something ‘bohemians’ would be eating in Punch satire on the Dadaists. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine whether or not I did try this one or whether I just imagined the kind of attic garret I’d be entertaining in, with my stockings rolled down and my poet and painter friends making bombs and waiting for the banana toasts to be ready. I will say this though — anchovy paste isn’t as easy to come by as it once was.

Banana Beauty

Women were of course expected to maintain some standards of appearance while plying their families with nutritious foods — and what better to use than — bananas! Bananas appear frequently in homemade beauty solutions in the first half of the twentieth century. In some highly dubious beauty advice from the Horowhenua Chronicle in 1932 bananas are promoted as everything from sunblock to foot salve.

bananas for beauty

One of the most popular suggestions from at least the 1940s on is the banana face mask. Sometimes they are mashed up with strawberries, or yoghurt, or honey or oats, but always they promise returns in the form of taut, smooth, youthful skin.

My recipe gleaned from the pages of 1970s magazine is as follows

2 mashed bananas

1 tsp honey

1 tbsp green clay powder

and enough rolled oats to make a gloopy mix that will stay on your face.

This makes enough for about three human-sized faces.



It is best if you have staff to apply this while you recline, Norma Desmond-like in your turban and house coat. Unfortunately I had to rely on my staff to take the photo as well, so it is a little blurry. I can report that this does make your skin feel very nice and soft, but also that it does attract bees, so maybe use indoors with the windows closed if you mind the tickly little fellas walking all over your face.




 After the Second World War salads were Big News in cookery. Having been famously missing from British fruit shops for the duration bananas were reintroduced as a symbol of post war plenty. In the rest of the world banana companies like Chiquita and the Fruit Dispatch Company threw their efforts into promoting bananas with cookbooks, jingles and of course singing cartoon spokes-bananas.


Many of these ‘salad’s were simply bananas arranged on a plate with a lettuce leaf and some mayonnaise, and some other random ingredient to distinguish them from the other banana salads.

These have all been forgotten by the majority of modern audiences. Sometimes though, a salad comes along that imprints itself so deeply on the collective psyche that it will never be wholly forgotten. Such is the CANDLE SALAD.

candleAs you can see, these gay suppertime treats involve simulating a lit candle with a just ripe banana. To our modern, depraved minds they seem highly suggestive (of penises) but for past generations this was either not at all apparent or one of the longest running in-jokes in church-lady cookery of all time.   Here are instructions to make yours at home.

Make your own Candle Salad!

First select a nice, straight banana. No one wants to deal with a bendy candle! Cut it off at the bottom so it will sit up nice and proud. Place two or three pineapple rings on a plate, and insert the banana into these—this will keep the candle erect. Now pierce the tip of the banana with a sharp knife and insert a half a maraschino cherry – this represents the cheery little flame! Lastly dribble some whipped cream down the shaft of the banana, simulating the melting wax of the candle. Ta da! This is sure to pique the most jaded of appetites. Here’s one I prepared earlier.


And as an added bonus, and because our fore-cooks were not all insane slaves to the test kitchen insanity, here is a very recipe for Banana Cream Pie—the type you can buy giant slices of in Hawaiian diners to have with your bottomless cup of coffee or pint glass of sweet iced tea. This one comes from my 1952 copy of The Complete American-Jewish Cook Book.


As you can see this one came out a little runny but that was only because it knew I was going to take a photo of it. It’s actually a really good recipe.


Whaddaya think?  Any of these take your fancy?  What do you do with your bananas? Let me know in the comments!

4 thoughts on “5 things our grandmothers did with bananas (that we don’t do now!)

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