Story by Shannon Wianecki | Illustration by Guy Junker
Deep in the Maui rain forest, on opposite poles of the island, two bakers wake early to mash bananas and mix dough. Whether they know it or not, they’re engaged in a competition for the crown, the noble title of Banana Bread Queen.
Who bakes Maui’s best banana bread is hotly contested online. Fans rally around their favorite, broadcasting their votes far and wide on user-review sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Chowhound. Battle lines are drawn between East and West.
Baking for East Maui, we have Aunty Sandy. For three decades she’s supplied weary travelers with sustenance at a cheery pit stop along the infamous Hana Highway.
Simultaneously scenic and hair-raising, the road to Hana seems a living part of the forest itself. Wedged against sheer sea cliffs, squeezed across one-lane bridges, and encroached upon by serpentine vines and overhanging trees, it whiplashes left then right through the rain forest, as if stalking a drunken menehune.
Midway along this route is the Keanae Landing Fruit Stand. This, of all places, is where the Internet directs tourists in their search for the ultimate banana bread.
Slightly green at the gills and stiff from clenching panic bars, travelers spill from their autos and meekly accept their slice of bread as if it’s holy sacrament. Others, emboldened by their unexpected survival, demand not only bread, but copious photos with Aunty Sandy, her cats, her neighbors, their surfboards and some random fishing floats.
Over on Maui’s west side, the scene is nearly identical. In tiny, rural Kahakuloa, Julia has been peddling moist, fragrant banana bread for fifteen-plus years.
Compared to Keanae, Kahakuloa is crowded with around 100 residents. But in some ways, it’s even more remote. Kahekili Highway, the cliff-hanging road that snakes behind the West Maui Mountains, offers white-knuckled adventure for banana-bread lovers. Driving there is a contact sport: you must befriend oncoming traffic. Eye contact, honks, and shaka signs are essential as vehicles pass one another on a pockmarked trail hardly wide enough for a wheelbarrow. When sign language fails, you might be forced to reverse up a steep incline with nary a protective shoulder.
Perched on a perilous twist along this path, Julia’s chartreuse tree house was “discovered” by two obstreperous guidebook authors. After they declared her humble loaves “Best on the Planet,” the traffic zipping through the tiny hamlet quintupled. Julia could hardly keep up with the demand. Pilgrims began lining up after dawn to be blessed with still-warm breads. An economy was born.
Now a hot commodity, banana bread has popped up at roadside stands islandwide. But the online reviewers reserve their effusive praise for Sandy or Julia. “I never leave Maui without a dozen loaves from Aunty Sandy,” says one. “Julia’s bread is better than my grandma’s,” writes another. Crowing over their favorite, they’re equally critical of her competitor.
“I’d give Julia’s banana bread five stars, but I was stung by a bee while eating it, so it gets only three.” “Aunty Sandy’s was closed when I arrived = one star.” (Naturally, roadside fruit stands should remain open well past sundown to accommodate stragglers.)
Let’s face it, after a harrowing trip along the razor’s edge, any edible morsel might taste like heaven-sent mana. Sure, Maui’s sun-ripened apple bananas and pure cane sugar lend each loaf a special quality, not unlike a wine’s terroir. But mostly, the reviewers admire themselves for surviving a trek into the hinterlands. The banana bread is the tangible proof that they came, they conquered.
In fact, both breads are scrumptious. If not queens, Aunty Sandy and Julia are certainly savvy entrepreneurs. They’ve transformed the traffic blowing through their rural communities from an invasion into an asset. And by the way, both stands also sell coconut candy. Best in the world!