Kitchens are often welcoming rooms. There’s the tantalizing aromas of food cooking, the warmth from a stove, the thought of meals to come. It doesn’t matter if the kitchen is small or spacious, in a city apartment or in a country house, modern or traditional. You soon find yourself at home. For a time, Jane’s kitchen was especially dear to me.
She worked as a cook for an expat family in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. Although she had already celebrated her 60th birthday when I met her, she rarely took a break in her work with pots and pans. Her kitchen was one of constant motion, sunshine, laughter, tender scents and always something to taste. It was a space to breathe during a harsh dictatorship.
This was during the time hyperinflation in Zimbabwe reached several million percent and the shelves in the supermarkets stood empty. Even the most basic ingredients such as mealie meal, egg or milk were hard to come by. We would drive for hours to search for tomatoes, and when we found some to buy it was almost impossible to count our Zimbabwean dollars in time with the inflation rate.
Two decades of increasingly paranoid and violent rule by President Robert Mugabe had completely depleted the economy. A country that had once been the bread basket of southern Africa could no longer produce enough grains, vegetables or fruit for its own population. Parts of the country’s agricultural sector had been laid in ruins by corrupt politicians.
The situation called for imagination and creativity in the kitchen. On a shelf above her stove, Jane kept an old cook book, a fingered source of inspiration from the time when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia and the capital was called Salisbury. It was a thin, stapled booklet of yellowed pages entitled “Fun with Food Again.”
The book had been sold to benefit physically handicapped children, and according to the preface it was the third booklet in a series – following “Fun with Food” and “More Fun with Food.” The recipes had been collected by the white Rhodesia’s many housewives and was a long list of British culinary specialties. Only one recipe was of the local Shona kitchen, a classic African spinach stew.
One of Jane’s favourite recipes was a robust and juicy banana loaf, a contribution from a Mrs Spencer from a place that at the time was called Bromley, today better known as Bindura. I also quickly became a fan of the banana loaf, not just for the warm and comforting taste of the freshly baked cake but because I had such a wonderful time chatting with Jane in the kitchen when she prepared it.
We imagined the charmed life of the Rhodesian housewives behind the recipes. They would have been addressed Madam by their African servants, women like Jane, who were often forced to abandon their own families and homes to serve the colonial masters. We joked about how Mrs Spencer and her lady friends would drink gin-and-tonics on the stoop at sunset and gossip about their husbands.
It wasn’t until 1980 that Ian Smith’s racist minority government was overthrown by Robert Mugabe’s liberation forces. Decades later, the euphoria and celebration of independence had given way to bitter disappointment for many. In her kitchen, Jane would simply note that even though things were bad in the old times at least there had been food in the shops.
On the pages of the old cook book were ads for products that Jane could now often only dream about: milk, cream, butter, cheese, ice cream and milk powder, all produced by Rhodesian farmers. There were also ads for Morris cars and Electrolux household appliances, for those who could afford them. That would of course only have been the privileged white elite that benefitted from the racist regime.
Since Jane and I baked banana loaves in Harare the economy has been dollarized and the shelves in the super markes have yet again filled up with products for those who can afford them. Many Zimbabweans can’t. It has been years since I visited Zimbabwe, but every time I bake Jane’s banana loaf I taste a bit of the sunshine, warmth, laughter and creative defiance of her very special kitchen.
Jane’s Banana Loaf
- 500 ml cake flour
- 200 ml sugar
- ¾ teaspoon bicarbonate soda
- 100 ml milk
- 4 ripe bananas, mashed
- 100 grams butter
- A pinch of salt
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla paste
Heat the oven to 175 degrees C and prepare a loaf pan with butter and bread crumbs
Mix flour and bicarbonate soda
Cream butter and sugar in a bowl
Add the eggs and mix
Add the mashed bananas
Add the vanilla paste
Add the milk and mix to a smooth batter
Add the dry ingredients
Mix to a smooth batter and pour in prepared loaf pan
Bake for one hour
Serve with whipped cream