Banana Bread

August 16, 2008
It was my friend's birthday yesterday. Since I love to cook, I decided to make her banana bread. The bananas I had harvested from my banana tree the week before were ripe; some had even begun to turn brown. So I took some of the ripest ones and began to mash them up with the butter and sugar, and a few hours later I took two wonderfully aromatic loaves out of the oven.

Unable to appreciate a lovely pastry as just that, I began to ponder the ultimate origin of this banana bread of mine (if it even was mine), the actual amount of time I had invested in it, and the real size of my own personal role in its production. I had grown the bananas myself. Or, at least, I had watered and cared for the tree that had produced them for the preceding three years. I could say, of course, that I had been working on the banana bread for those three years. When I thought about it more, however, my estimation of my own importance, at least to the growing of the bananas, quickly waned. For one thing, almost anyone can grow bananas in Texas. Banana trees often grow here with no human effort. None of the Texas gardeners with lush banana groves could grow the trees in Canada nor on the moon nor in a desert nor on those patches of Amazon land that slash-and-burn agriculture have left bare; the trees cannot survive without ample sunlight, air, water, and potassium-rich soil. They need little more than those, and the portion they received from me is relatively small. I came to the conclusion that God, who makes the sun, atmosphere, and soil chemicals work together to push the plants out of the ground, had produced those splendid fruits which I so arrogantly ventured to call my own. I had admittedly had a role, but it had neither been vital to the plant's development nor any greater than anyone else's could have been. Nor had I made any of the other ingredients myself. I did not persuade the cow to give its milk, I did not beg the hen for its egg, and I did not put the metal out of which the metal workers had forged my pots and pans into the mines. None of the raw materials and equipment I needed to make the banana bread was really mine. I had to borrow even the requisite knowledge and expertise from the author of The Bread Book by reading the recipe, a task that in itself would have been impossible for me had my kindergarten teacher not taught me to read.

In a way, I am a bit like the pots, pans, and dishes in which I made my banana bread. Into my mind God has placed all the experiences, all the skills, all the gifts and talents and abilities that make my works and products what they are, just as into my possession he has placed the fruit, the sugar, the butter, and the oven that make the banana bread what it is. Admittedly, I have a role in the production process, but it appears to be small, and God can use a different person just as easily as I could use a different bowl or pan with little extra effort whatsoever.

I know of people who take the view that each person is the sum of his or her experiences, upbringing, and hereditary background. Someone like that would likely compare me to my banana bread, my life experiences to the ingredients, my society or environment to the pans and bowls, and God or nature or some other cosmic force to the cook. It's a very sunny, comfortable view and it would be pleasant to think of myself as analogous to the works of my hands of which I am most proud. My view, however, is somewhat less exciting. I think that the products of our physical and intellectual labor, not we ourselves, are the true sums of everything we've felt and seen and read and heard, and that we are not the products but the vessels and utensils, the mixing bowls and spoons and baking pans.

My busy kitchen is full of such cooking tools. Each of the myriad dishes, appliances, and tools is entirely unique, designed to perform its own task; the blender to blend, the whisk to beat, the mixing bowls to hold things to be mixed, and so on. So, too, is each individual person created for a purpose as a tool that contributes to his or her creator's goal. Also, some things are more useful for their intended purpose than others: my old teapot is misshapen and rusted from its years of heavy use, my nice new frying pan with copper wires in the base to distribute the heat is perfect for what it does and quite enjoyable to use, and my twin shiny, new, state-of-the-art cookie sheets that are too big to fit in my oven are utterly useless to me. Some people are like my frying pan, excelling in what they do, and others are like my rusty teapot that adds a strange taste to everything that comes out. Still others simply won't fit into the figurative oven, refusing outright to fulfill their purpose and frustrating the projects their creator has planned for them. Each person's works, then, are shadows of platonic ideals distorted by their own faults and imperfections. Even my wonderful frying pan is not entirely flawless, nor is any person perfect, entirely capable of rendering a finished product exactly as the Great Chef intends. Our unique strengths and weaknesses as people leave impressions on the products of our lives and, in my opinion, the smaller and less conspicuous my impression is, the better.

That said, I can't plausibly take much credit for this essay. It is a divinely arranged combination of my life experiences and the ideas that have entered my mind through others, from the books I've read, from my parents, and from a variety of other sources, and all of that polluted and deformed by my innate personal characteristics. Anything good or desirable about the preceding page and a half is so because God is such an amazing cook; anything bad or repulsive about it is a result of my own inadequacy as a vessel for God's project. I hope my influence has been as small, benign, and insignificant as possible. On a related note, Catherine loved the banana bread.

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