Sunday, June 4, 2017

Banana-Pecan Bread in Round House // Cook Your Books


In this Cook Your Books series, I have chosen 15 books to read in 2017 based on somewhat arbitrarily chosen categories. My theory (bogus it might turn out to be) is that all 15 of these books will somehow connect to food. And I plan to write about that food.  And it turns out that these entries are a sort of long-form blog-post. So settle in. This fifth installment is National Book Award winner.

In a world going increasingly mad, reading seems to be an increasingly political act to me. And so it is with the inimitable Louise Erdrich, who has always been a political writer. Such is no more evident than in her National Book Award winning novel Round House.

The book opens with 13-year-old Joe Coutts digging out tiny trees whose roots have attacked his parents' house at the foundation--a laborious activity he engages in with his father. In perhaps a beleaguered metaphor, within pages we learn that Joe wants to root out the mystery of who has damaged the very foundation of his family--someone who has raped his mother (and murdered another woman). Erdrich, herself, wishes to root out injustice through this book, particularly the injustices done against women, against America's indigenous peoples, and against those without power, money, or prestige. And so she takes it all on in this coming-of-age book filled with scatological humor, with the sexual grotesqueness of just-barely teen boys with surging hormones, with ghosts and legends, and with intricate laws surrounding jurisdiction on and near a reservation, particularly if the perpetrator of a crime is Indian or non-Indian. 



Such is the overarching narrative of this ambitious book.  And I have to tell you, there is so much food in this book. It's everywhere. There are hot dogs roasted over the fire at the sweat lodge (36), pickle and peanut butter sandwiches (63), fry bread (70), a bag of potato salad (98), hamburger soup (111), maple ice cream (122), raspberry jam (150), baked chicken (151), and cornflakes (162). That's all followed by oatmeal cookies (164), beer-battered walleye (165), fried venison with mustard and onions (178), white sheet cake with whiskey-laced sugar frosting (206), cold meatloaf sandwiches (215), bowls of fresh peas (240), fried shrimp (265), and fried egg sandwiches with horseradish mayonnaise (296). And that's just some of the pages I dog-eared (my very organized method of marking pages that mention food).  



So you see, definitely, there was not a shortage of food. But, I wanted to choose something that had some weight--something that mattered to the book, because as we have established in Fun Home, characters eat. Sometimes in meaningless ways. 

However, there were some pretty meaningful moments with food in this book. For example, there is a funny and sweet 
manipulation from Bazil Coutts (Joe's father), as his father tries to rouse his wife, Geraldine from bed and back into the world of the living after the trauma of her rape. He makes a terrible stew of "sour turnips and canned tomatoes, beets, and corn scorched garlic, unknown meat and an onion gone bad" (35).  Bazil announces that "very little is needed to make a happy life" and Geraldine frowns and gamely attempts to eat this offering. She concludes that "she should start cooking again" (35).

Which she does until Bazil startles her a mere seven pages later and she drops a far more edible casserole onto the floor (42-3). From that moment, she steps "over the mess on the floor and walk[s] carefully away" (43).  What results is the "frozen suspension of feeling" of deep depression that consumes her for a good chunk of the book.  

Joe spends his time trying to heal his mother by finding her rapist and trying to bring him to justice. It is not until much later when she declares to her son that the now identified murderer and rapist is "trying to eat us, Joe. I won't let him, she said. I will be the one to stop him" (248). Instead of being eaten, of being consumed--by grief, by the perpetrator, by incomprehensible and unjust laws--she declares that she will do the consuming.

However, it doesn't turn out quite that way.  Instead, it is Joe who must do the consuming. In part because he is younger and will receive a lighter sentence than his mother if he is caught meting out justice. In part because he is 13 and has an adolescent's grasp on how justice should be enacted. In part because Erdrich is making a point about a failed federal legal system that hobbles tribal lands from bringing justice through proper means and that leaves a tragic and vigilante justice in the hands of a 13 year old.


Which brings us to the banana bread.





This is going to take some background, so bear with me. Bazil, a tribal judge, had once heard a case of Linda Wishcob, a white woman who was abandoned as a child due to birth defects and who was subsequently adopted as a baby into the Wishcob family on the reservation. Now grown, Linda works at the reservation post office.

Linda visits the Coutts house, wanting to pay her respects to Geraldine and to bring whatever healing she can to Geraldine. She brings what she can do best--banana bread: Joe narrates, "She had a little package in her hands, probably some of her banana bread--she bought black bananas and was known for her bread" (113). While she's visiting Geraldine, Bazil wants Joe to "trap Linda" and pump her for information about her twin brother, Linden Lark, a shady character if ever there was one.  



Joe begins by complimenting her bread, and she reveals she uses "real cinnamon" that she buys in "jars not cans. From the foreign food section down in Hornbacher's, Fargo. Not the stuff you get here. Sometimes I use a little lemon zest or orange peel" (114). Joe butters her up by telling her that he has previously stolen slices of her banana bread for breakfast from his parents because they have been "hogging it all" and Linda, whom Joe at one point described as "a drenched hobbit" (113), gobbles up the attention. She promises to bring two loaves next time she visits. Joe pounces and draws her story out of her.  But he realizes that "I really did like the banana bread, and that I was surprised I had, because the truth was usually I hated banana bread. What I mean is suddenly I forgot my father and really started talking to Linda. I went past pop eyes and sinister porcupine hands and wispy hair and just saw Linda, and wanted to know about her, which is probably why she told me" (114-5).

And her story is hard. Born second to a fully formed boy, she "slid out half dead" with a crumpled head, arm, and leg. Her mother, wanting only one of the twins, allows Linda to be adopted in to the reservation by the Wishcobs. Her new parents shape her and stretch her and celebrate her, telling her that her "soft spot stayed open longer than most babies. That's how spirits get in" (116) and she comes to view herself as beautiful, even if others tell her she is "so ugly she is cute" (117). Years later, after her Indian parents die and her brothers and sisters have either moved off the reservation or closer to town, her birth mother tracks Linda down to ask her to be a kidney donor to her twin brother, Linden Lark. She does, and he mistreats her, laughing at her, insulting her, calling her "disgusting" (125). It is then Linda realizes who her real family is--her family on the reservation, who includes the extended healing powers of Geraldine and other community members who "got [her] on [her] feet again" (127).

So that initial banana bread exchange certainly is a way to bring healing or at least community and connection to Geraldine, but it also allows us to glimpse into the life of a woman who was meant to be dead from the first moments of her life. However the kindness of the delivery room nurse rescues her. Linda is this unassuming woman with physical disabilities. She was not meant to live. She is monstrously objectified and derided by Joe, laughed at by her own brother, used by her birth mother to save the chosen twin. Yet there she is, making bread, offering it to Geraldine in a moment of connection, despite anyone else's manipulation of her. And the bread is good, despite whatever preconceived notions one has about banana bread or about her. 



Fast forward to much later in the book, Joe has been learning to shoot a gun with his best friend Cappy. He brings a bag of bananas to Linda at the post office. He had kept them in his room, tending them closely so that they "were soft and spotted but not black" (261). When he gives them to her, "she took the bag with her chubby little paws, and when she opened it her whole face glowed as though I'd given her something precious" (262). His derision is still palpable, even though he has grown up considerably in the 140 pages since our last encounter with banana bread. Linda asks if they are from Geraldine, but Joe corrects her, saying they are from him. She flushes "with pleasure and wonder" (262) and promises him a loaf of bread. Again, he's manipulating her, playing to her desire to be loved, accepted, and all Joe wants is to pump her for more information about her twin brother. But Linda sees the bananas as something more. Humble, decaying, these bananas are the fruits you might throw out as rotten, unwanted. But Linda knows how to transform them into something desirable (precious even), despite anyone else's intentions (manipulation, etc). 



The next day, she comes out to the Coutts house and gives Joe "the familiar foil brick" of the banana bread (262); she hands another off to his father. Linda settles in to talk about the weather with Bazil as Geraldine, now no longer bed ridden, makes tea to go with the banana bread. Joe is ever patient, and he pretends to fall asleep as Bazil and Linda discuss the intricacies of rain and hail and all of their nuances (admittedly, it does sound like a snooze-inducing conversation); he imagines he will rouse and then ask more questions about her estranged twin brother and his golfing habits (important plot detail). However, his ploy backfires; he really does fall asleep, and his mother wakes him an hour later and Linda is gone. Instead of feeling disappointed in not learning more from Linda, he feels  "the childhood sensation of [his mother's] hand stroking his ankle" and hears his mother's voice and he is "flooded ... with peace" (263). This banana bread inadvertently brings his own mother back to him, and it brings back the moment when "I allowed my consciousness to sink to an even younger hiding place where nothing could touch me" (263).  Try to manipulate Linda all you want. She just brings the safety and comfort of warm banana bread. Again and again.



And then later again, after justice has been meted out against his mother's rapist, Joe goes to visit Linda, this time at her home. He has questions, and again he's using Linda, pumping her for information about the rifle he has hidden beneath her front porch and about any knowledge of her brother's death. And what we learn is that Linda, the only women who has not been sexualized in this book (although she has certainly been objectified due to her physical disabilities), knows everything she needs to know about Joe: that he has protected his mother so that she can "pick bush beans all day and nobody [would] bother her" and "give her colander a shake" to settle her freshly picked beans and do so without fear (294). Linda knows that Joe has done what he has needed to do, even if he does not fully understand why. 

But Linda does understand why. She understands much more than she has ever let on, and more than a 13-year-old boy can understand. Instead of returning the rifle in question to him, she has already dismantled it and spread it across the Plains states on a road trip from Georgia to North Dakota. She hands him a last brick of banana bread, and she also gives him the final screw to the rifle, asking Joe to give it to his mother. Linda knows that this final screw is the freedom from something sinister, if even only for a moment. And as he bikes home with the banana bread tucked into his armpit, he throws the screw into the ditch. He doesn't give his mother the pleasure of throwing out the screw or saving it in her jewelry box or burying it (as Linda suggests). But Linda and Joe have given his mother the freedom of a tenuous security in a country that sexualizes and victimizes women and denies rights to the marginalized citizens of this North Dakota reservation. This is justice, yes, but a hard-fought and shaky one at best.



So the banana bread: Joe has all these ideas that he's manipulating Linda through the banana bread, but it turns out that she has other, more powerful ideas. Ideas that go well beyond this manipulation. Ideas of connection, and true community. And not to get too pat--because the ending of this book is not pretty. (As if I need a spoiler alert here, given that I have pretty much given away most of the plot of this book): We have justice delivered by the hands of adolescents in a country that cannot deliver it by more formal means. But we also have a family whose bonds transcends that of blood (in the case of Linda) and that of violence (in the case of Joe). 

This is no feel-good book. But it does delineate who are closest communities are. And it delivers it in the form of food, particularly banana bread. 




------

Banana-Pecan Bread

"She was so happy we liked the banana bread that I thought maybe Dad wouldn't need me to get her to talk, but he said, Wasn't it good, Joe? And then I said how I'd eaten it for breakfast and how I'd even stolen a piece because Mom and Dad were hogging it all" (The Round House 114).

Adapted from Blue Chair Cooks with Jam and Marmalade by Rachel Saunders

Not going to lie: this is a pretty fancy banana bread, complete with orange marmalade, slow-roasted pecans, and plump golden raisins. But I am not a huge banana bread fan, and I wanted to try this recipe anyway. So here we are. There are other great and more traditional banana breads out there (try here and here and here). But this is a spectacular banana bread when you need something a little special and unexpected slice with a cup of tea or coffee in the morning. You might be accused of hogging it all.

Yield
1 5x9 inch loaf

Ingredients

2½-3 medium overripe bananas
½ cup citrus marmalade (I used a pretty typical orange marmalade)
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp kosher salt
Large pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup very finely chopped baked or roasted pecans*
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
⅓ cup packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs

Instructions
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350℉. Butter a 9 X 5-inch loaf pan and line with parchment paper. 

2.  In a small bowl, mash the bananas with a fork and stir in the marmalade. Set aside.

3.  In a medium bowl, whisk both flours, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg. Stir in the raisins and pecans. Set aside.

4.  In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together with a mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl after each addition. On the lowest speed, beat in the banana mixture and then then flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

5.  Bake until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool the bread in its pan on a wire rack before slicing and serving.

*Saunders recommends slow baking your pecans (about 1 pound) for an hour in a low-heat oven of 225℉.  Spread the pecans on a baking sheet, dot them with 4 Tablespoons of butter and bake away. Then add a generous pinch of salt. You can also roast them quickly in a dry pan, but I have to say, if you have the time slow bake the pecans the night before. You won't regret it.

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