If memory serves, this week’s “Retro Recipe” began as a dare some months ago when a friend and colleague posted a photo of Ham Banana Rolls to my Facebook page. Like many, my first reaction was repulsion. The combination of ham, bananas, mustard and cheese does not appeal to contemporary palates like perhaps it once did.
But consider that bananas and ham often appear together in recipes of the Pacific and Caribbean. Much like pineapple, bananas represented adventure and far-off exotic places in the American imaginary as early as the 1830s when they began appearing in markets in major cities. The growth of the railway in 1880s allowed perishable imported foods to reach the midwest, at which point cookbooks began including a variety of banana recipes including creams, custards, cakes, pies, and even ice creams.
In Bananas: An American Story, Virginia Scott Jenkins recounts a story from the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. A forty-acre display of tropical plants in the Horticulture Hall included large banana tree. It was so popular that a guard had to be posted nearby to discourage people from tearing the plant apart for souvenirs. Interestingly, it was the same year that bananas appeared in Philadelphia markets, wrapped in tin foil. They were sold at ten cents each, which was equivalent to an hour’s wage for most people. It wasn’t really until after WWII that bananas went from being a luxury food to an inexpensive kitchen staple – thanks in large part to the efforts of the Dole and Chiquita and companies.
The United Fruit Company, parent company of Chiquita, advertised this recipe for decades from the post-war period through the 1970s. This particular advertisement suggests Ham and Banana Rolls as part of a luncheon menu that also includes a mixed vegetable salad and a hot gingerbread with whipped cream.
TIPS AND TRICKS
You need to use bananas that are slightly green, otherwise they will fall apart after baking. Most grocery stores sell them this way. If yours are ripe or over ripe, it will be better to make a banana bread or cake.
The kind of prepared mustard you use is a matter of preference. American “French style” yellow mustard will give more tang from the vinegar, while Dijon or brown mustard will offer a spicier kick.
The kind of cheese you use is also a matter of preference. American cheese, as suggested, melts easier because of the higher oil content – as Velveeta or Kraft. If you’re intending to serve these as an interesting appetizer for a nicer dinner party, I would recommend an aged cheddar. This basic recipe for cheese sauce was a kitchen staple that many cooks and housewives could make without referencing a recipe card. It is useful with any number of recipes.
Once people get over their initial repulsion over the idea of this recipe, their first question is inevitably “What does it taste like?”
First, unripe bananas – even after baking – have a starch-to-sugar ratio of 25:1 (a ratio that changes dramatically to 1:20 when ripened). So if you’re expecting a bizarre combination of savory and sweet, you’ll be disappointed. Unripened bananas and plantains are much more related to potatoes than fruits. A friend of mine described the flavor of the baked banana as being similar to baked artichoke hearts. And so much of what you taste is the sweetness of the ham, a bit of tang from the mustard, and the zip from whatever kind of cheese you use from the sauce.
Much like the others in the Retro Recipes series, this dish captures the flavors, ingredients and cooking methods of the times.
Spread each slice of ham lightly with mustard. Wrap a slice of the prepared ham around each banana. Place in a buttered shallow baking pan and pour cheese sauce over bananas. Bake in a moderate oven (350F) 30 minutes, or until bananas are tender… easily pierced with a fork.
Serve hot with cheese sauce from the pan poured over each roll.
To Make Cheese Sauce:
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup milk
1 1/2 cups grated American cheese
Melt butter, add flour and stir until smooth. Stir in milk slowly. Add cheese and cook, stirring constantly until sauce is smooth and thickened. Makes about 1 cup sauce.