A bunch of bananas

A bunch of bananas, some flour, sugar, a couple of eggs, oil, a little bit of baking soda and baking powder, a dash of cinnamon and a pinch of nutmeg. With these simple ingredients and an oven, I made a loaf of banana bread, here known as “pastel de plátano,” and with it began the start of something beautiful that I never intended nor predicted. I simply made it because I thought it would be something fun to do and be a nice treat to share with the neighbors.

In setting out to make the banana bread, finding baking soda was a funny obstacle. I quickly discovered that baking soda either wasn’t available, or that it was known by a name other than I had ever heard. It finally occurred to me to look on a package of baking powder to see what baking soda is called here, as it is one of the ingredients in baking powder. I discovered that they call it “bicarbonato de sodio”, or sodium bicarbonate. I went to the grocery store to buy some sodium bicarbonate, and it was nowhere to be found. I later asked around to see if anyone knew what it was and where I could find it. One woman told me that I could find it in any pharmacy. “In any pharmacy? Why the pharmacy?” I asked, confused. She replied, “Because that’s what we use to whiten our teeth. What do you use it for?” Sure enough, I found it exactly as she had said, in the pharmacy, looking very pharmaceutical in a white plastic bottle with plain blue writing. With that, I was able to make my first loaves.

I gifted the first loaf of banana bread to a neighbor, another to a friend, and part of a third loaf to two women who came to visit me, and to an elderly women who is on her feet all day selling “choclo,” boiled corn. A small portion of that third loaf I decided I had to keep as “quality control,” as I had not yet sampled my own product. I received a variety of reactions from those who tried the bread. Most had never heard of or tried banana bread before, but liked it. Juana, the woman who sells choclo on the corner outside of my house thought I was out selling my bread, when I went to offer her some to try. Her question made me realize that baking or cooking as a pastime is a privilege that many people in my neighborhood cannot afford. Baking and preparing food is a necessary means to an end, to earning an income and feeding hungry bellies, and not often an end in itself.

In the days after sharing my loaves of bread with friends and neighbors, I found out that word was spreading quickly about the banana bread. I soon had several requests coming from different women to teach them how to make the bread. A couple of them I had never even met before nor had they tried the bread, rather they had heard about me from their neighbor. One woman even stopped Rafael on the street to inquire about learning to bake and what kind of things I know how to make. The teachers at the school where I live and work, a school for children and youth with disabilities, found out that I like to bake. They invited me to lead one of the baking workshops for the teens and young adults, to teach them how to make the banana bread. Last week the children made the banana bread, and after each eating a piece, they sold slices to the neighbors to pay for the cost of making the bread. To everyone’s surprise, in about 30 minutes or less they sold out of the 40 slices of bread they made, and still had more customers waiting for a slice! I’m not sure who had more fun that day, me or the kids!

The director of the school suggested that I invite the parents and relatives of the students, as well as the neighbors, to come to the school and bake with me. Of course, for our first session we made none other than, you guessed it, the infamous banana bread! I was surprised and humbled by the turn out. I had a small note sent home with the students, which they helped me color, inviting their families to come to a baking workshop. I asked the families if possible, to collaborate by bringing an ingredient to the workshop. Last Wednesday, the day of the baking workshop for the adults, I was taken by surprise when people who couldn’t even make it to the workshop collaborated by dropping off some ingredients for us to use that afternoon. Their generosity amazed me, as it gave some who could not afford to contribute ingredients an opportunity to come and bake.

Five minutes before the baking workshop was set to begin no one was there. Three o’clock came and no one arrived. 3:05. Still no one. “I’ll be happy if one or two people come this afternoon.” 3:10. “Hmm, maybe I’ll take a little nap while I wait.” 3:15. Awoke to a knock on the door and I was greeted by several women. That is actually considered quite prompt by standards of “Peruvian Time.” Within a few more minutes, a total of ten women had gathered. After taking some time for greeting and visiting, we started in on the baking. It was a lot of fun. Again, I’m not sure who had more fun, me or the women! I had a great time with them. I think they may have enjoyed it too, as not even halfway through baking they asked me what else I knew how to make and when we were going to meet next. I asked them when they would like to meet again. Well, we’d gladly be here tomorrow they told me, but how about this time next week. I looked at the director of the school, who had very kindly offered to stay that afternoon to attend the workshop and assist me. That sounds great she said! We are happy for the community to use the bakery. This space is yours to use. The women and I thanked her, and we made plans to make a carrot cake for this week. Yum. We can’t wait.

This small baking ministry has started with a bunch of bananas, a desire to do some baking, and to get to know my neighbors and the women in the community here. I never thought that it would ever lead to this! Where does it go from here? Only God truly knows. I invite you to be a part of this ministry with me. I would really appreciate you if you or anyone you know could please share ideas and recipes to plan future weeks of baking with the women in the district of El Porvenir, Trujillo, Perú.

Please post the recipe(s) here as a comment on this blog. Any recipe you can share would be greatly appreciated and needed. The women are interested in learning how to bake quick breads, rolls, biscuits, regular bread, cookies, bars, cakes, muffins, cupcakes. You name it, they are interested in making it. The women have also asked for “no bake” recipes, as the vast majority of them do not have ovens in their homes. They would like to be able to make some of these recipes on their own, to be able to enjoy them at home and to sell some of their baked goods. The women have also told me that they would like to learn how to make jam and learn how to can it. Any sort of jam or jelly recipes would be great too. Typical and more affordable fruits at the markets here include apples, peaches, oranges, mandarin oranges/clementines, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, and passion fruit. Thank you for your help. I will keep you updated with our future baking endeavors here in Perú.