Articles published in the 1890s urged Queensland banana growers to produce banana flour, claiming that the banana bread produced from it was healthier than that made from wheat. However, this was not the sweet loaf that has become a café classic in the 2000s. The banana flour was made from dried and pulverised green bananas and the loaf it produced was likely more akin to standard wheat bread, albeit gluten-free.
The commodity failed to catch on in Australia but was in use as a substitute for wheat flour in the Caribbean in the late 19th century. It was claimed that the banana bread produced this way was healthier than that made from wheat. More than 100 years later a Queensland grower, Rob Watkins, began to produce commercial quantities of the flour.
Although bananas are an everyday purchase in Australia today, it wasn’t always so. An article in the Blyth Agriculturist *SA) in 1927 claims that “Fifty years ago the banana was practically unknown”. By the turn of the century, they were becoming more plentiful in Australia, largely thanks to the efforts of Chinese planters and fruiterers.
The banana bread now found as a common item on café menus in Australia (including those of chains such as Michel’s Patisserie and even McDonalds’ McCafe) in fact seems to have American origins. Most sources claim to the first American recipe appeared in Pillsbury’s 1933 Balanced Recipes cookbook. The first recipe I can find in Australian publications appeared the same year.
Many attribute the arrival of banana bread to the commercialisation of baking powder, the ingredient that makes “quick breads” like this rise. However, baking powders in one form or another had been around since the middle of the 19th century. Perhaps it was the increasing popularity of bananas and the reluctance to waste food during the Great Depression that gave birth to the popular recipe.
During Australia’s first lockdown thanks to the 2020 Coronavirus epidemic, banana bread became one of the most-searched-for recipes. Cashing in, the Australian Bananas organisation announced a “best banana bread” competition to kick off on 1 May, National Banana Day.
In April 2020, Google provided data to The Age showing that the most-searched-for recipes over the past 30 days had been banana bread, pancakes, pizza dough, bread and cookies. It seems searches for the bread increased by 54 per cent worldwide as families in lock-down turned to home baking. Comfort food to be sure.