Finding my way to bannan fri
An essay and a recipe for plantain. Words and photograph by Edna Bonhomme.
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Cooking from Life is a Vittles mini-season of essays that defy idealised versions of cooking – a window into how food and kitchen-life works for different people in different parts of the world. Cooking as refusals, heritage, messiness, routine.
Our fourth writer for Cooking from Life is Edna Bonhomme.
Finding my way to bannan fri
An essay and recipe for plantain, by Edna Bonhomme
The first time I ran away, I didn’t get very far. I barely left the neighbourhood, and, lacking an accomplice, I had no one to maintain my secrecy. I went to a place where I could breathe in the crisp South Florida air, where I could be simultaneously lazy and cheeky. So I went to Aunt Melo’s house, a two-bedroom duplex several blocks away. Like many homes in our neighbourhood, the yard was saturated with coconut, citrus and mango trees that were haphazardly mounted on the earth. Some were thriving; some needed life support. But it was impossible to be in the space without recognising that the garden’s aesthetic was loose: a crowded estate filled with toys, milk crates and herbal plants. Even the weeds were more unruly than usual; they bulged in every sidewalk crevice.
That afternoon, I fought back the urge to hide from my parents at the local playground any longer, so I approached Aunt Melo’s house, tiptoeing with finesse. Before I stepped into the house, I could hear ‘Harvest Song’ roaring through it; the vinyl spun, echoing Lolita Cuevas’ declaration that ‘The rain falls, the corn grows, all the hungry children will eat…’ while Frantz Casséus plucked the guitar strings. Inside, Aunt Melo stood, in a floral dress, next to the stove, seasoning the food with salt, coriander, and paprika.
Without turning her head, she asked, ‘Why are you here?’
I remained silent.
She repeated herself. ‘Why are you here?’
A flurry of crude and clumsy words eventually blurted out of my mouth. ‘I ran away,’ I blabbered. The silence hung in the air, but that didn’t matter. Eventually I drew closer to the countertop, noticing the blueprint of my favourite cuisine: plantain, carrots, onions, garlic, cabbage, and all the nibbles that left me salivating. The food was familiar and, as far as I was concerned, it needed to be eaten.
The critic Vivian Gornick once noted, ‘If you don’t leave home you suffocate; if you go too far you lose oxygen.’ Even at the tender age of nine I knew that leaving, even to somewhere nearby, was necessary for respiration. When my parents told me to make my bed, I baulked. When they told me to sweep the floor, I protested. Of course, many children at this age find a way to exercise any ounce of agency, sometimes putting their declarations into action. This is what I did, and, like most children, I was unprepared. I had no a knapsack, extra clothing; no shoes nor even a book. Instead, I showed up at Aunt Melo’s home uninvited, indignant, and ready to leave my parents.
At that moment, my parents didn’t matter – instead, I had to invite myself to a meal I wasn’t summoned to. But I did so by performing a role – being a silent and obedient child. Aunt Melo gripped the pan with her left hand and a spoon with her right, making sure not to have the sunflower oil splash on the stove-top. The liquid whistled lightly, occasional droplets jumping an inch from the pan. Once the plantains in the pan had a golden-brown cover, she removed them, placed them on a paper towel, and added a new batch. Soon I became Aunt Melo’s helper. I dipped the plantains into a marinade using a press, then squeezed them. Eventually the plantains, which now flattened like a pancake, would be refried, giving them a crispy layer.
Taken in by the delicious food, I stood in this kitchen – an assortment of pots and pans, plants and photos – anticipating the meals to come. My nose prickled with the aroma of garlic, lime, and scallions, and my stomach tumbled with hunger.
Licking my lips, I asked, ‘Can I have some?’
Aunt Melo’s brows furrowed. She turned to me and sighed. ‘Sure.’
This was when everything became a blur. I can’t remember whether I was sitting or standing, but I know I was content. I held one of the light-brown, mildly sweet plantains with one hand. Then I put the pikliz – a collection of carrots, onions, and habanero peppers – on top of the vegetable.
I was in a trance.
When the Spanish began colonising the Americas in the sixteenth century, Fr. José de Acosta, the Jesuit missionary, wrote that plantain ‘requireth much water, and in a manner continually, which agrees with the sacred Scripture.’ At that age I could not make a strong claim about the plant’s physiology or spirituality, but I knew that it could settle my appetite and calm the soul. To eat a plantain was to ingest revelry. When I gnawed at plantain, like a gourmand, I lusted after the vegetable with every breath. I chewed and swallowed, tasting the light paprika flavour. Everything about it was heavenly, a convergence of the family I would often run away from and the one I would run towards.
There are many names for plantain: ‘alloco’ in Côte d’Ivoire; ‘plátanos’ in Colombia; ‘tostones’ in the Dominican Republic. And it is ‘bannan’ in our language. Eating a plantain is itself an act of taking in the ancestors – it is a pleasure to anticipate that first bite and find beauty in nourishment. Plantains are a reminder of our ability to survive and to pass on our heritage, even if we initially entered a kitchen with respite.
The poet Annie Dillard once wrote, ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’ Sometimes those days are simple, a mild gesture where we consume the most familiar dish. For me, as an adult, it means spending my days reading, thinking, and writing in solitude. Perhaps the pressure to live through my writing can take me away from the mindless passion I had as a child, or maybe the memory does something more – it is a testament to my veritable infatuation with the plantain.
Sunflower oil, for frying
2 yellow plantains
¼ cup water
¼ teaspoon paprika
⅛ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon tajín (you could alternatively use all-spice or a seasoning mixture of your choice)
Small handful of roughly chopped coriander leaves
To serve: pikliz, or any spicy pickled vegetable relish
Set a large, shallow pan on the stove and add sunflower oil to a depth of approximately 1½–2cm, taking care not to overfill the pan.
Peel the plantains: cut off each end with a sharp knife, run the knife down the length of the skin, then peel off the skin like a jacket. Cut the plantains into 4–5cm pieces sliced perpendicular to the length of the plantain.
In a small pan, combine the water, paprika, salt and tajín. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until bubbling.
Heat the cooking oil in the shallow pan until it is hot. If you have a kitchen thermometer, you can use this to make sure the oil is at 180°C. If not, the oil is ready if, when you dip a piece of the plantain into it, it instantly sizzles.
Fry the plantain for roughly 3 minutes on each side, or until a light golden brown. Remove from the oil using a slotted spoon and dip into the tajín-spiced water .
Press each piece of plantain under the flat bottom of a drinking glass, until you have a fat, round coin of plantain.
Return the plantain to the cooking oil, frying for a few more minutes until crisp and brown on the outside, but fudge-like inside.
Garnish with the chopped coriander and serve warm with pikliz.
Edna Bonhomme is a historian, culture writer, and editor based in Berlin, Germany. Her writing has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Baffler, Esquire, Frieze, The Guardian, The London Review of Books, The Nation, WIRED, and other publications. A graduate of Princeton University’s Ph.D. program in History of Science, she holds awards and fellowships from the Max Planck Institute for History of Science, the Ludwig Maximilian Universität, the Camargo Foundation, and the Baldwin for the Arts. Edna’s book, A History of the World in Six Plagues (Simon & Schuster) and anthology, After Sex, are forthcoming.
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead. The recipes in Cooking from Life have been tested by Ruby Tandoh.