Top | Features

Bananarama

(article, Lisa Wogan)

[%pageBreakSettings maxWords=1100]

My earliest banana memories are of throwing them away. Two or three times a week, I’d retrieve from my lunch sack a mottled yellow specimen, battered by a long bus ride and several hours in a backpack. I salvaged only the fruit’s blue-and-yellow Chiquita stickers, which I stuck on my notebook like wallpaper, testimony to waste I didn’t appreciate at the time.

At home, however, bananas were different — even the overripe ones. They were foundational to my first cooking experiences. The only thing I really ever baked as a kid was The Joy of Cooking’s no-fault banana bread. I loved mixing the simple recipe from memory and the taste of banana pulp folded into the batter. Once baked, though, the bland bread never really lived up to the promise of the batter-coated spoon, unless I slathered a slice in butter and broiled it in a toaster oven. (Recently, I discovered an even better version of banana bread at my neighborhood bistro: banana bread pudding topped with vanilla ice cream, walnuts, and caramel sauce.) Over time, the potassium-rich tropical fruit moved onto my shredded wheat and into my smoothies and chocolate milkshakes. At Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor, my favorite dessert was the oversized banana split known as the Pig’s Trough. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="The Cavendish, America's favorite — and practically only — banana."]

Through it all, the banana was a consistent, ubiquitous, and workmanlike staple that I — and pretty much everyone I knew — took for granted. I failed to let certain niggling details sink in, even as I ate three or four bananas a week. I ignored the fact that bananas have no season and no seeds; that, although they're imported from thousands of miles away, they're often cheaper than apples grown nearby; and that most American grocery stores only sell one type of banana, even though hundreds of banana varieties are grown around the globe. 

A closer consideration of the banana reveals — or reminds, depending on your banana knowledge — that, for all its ubiquity and uniformity, this lunch-pail comfort food is a thoroughly strange fruit, with an appalling legacy of environmental degradation and socio-political oppression. That’s history; what’s news is that its destructive past may soon catch up with the banana, as disease and globalization combine to wipe it out. Within a decade or two, the big yellow banana we’ve all come to take for granted will, in all likelihood, disappear.

h3. The banana backstory

Deep-fried, baked, sliced into salads, mashed into cakes, dried, or simply peeled, bananas are adored around the world. They are the number-one fruit crop on the planet, and the fourth major food after rice, wheat, and milk. In many countries, local varieties of bananas are the main source of calories; in Uganda, for example, people eat approximately 500 pounds per person per year. Here in the U.S., where imported Cavendish bananas are the single most popular fruit, Americans eat an average of 25 pounds per person annually, more than oranges and apples combined. 

Before I wade too deeply among the banana corms (the root balls from which new banana plants grow), let me clear up my use of the term “banana.” I’m talking about the bananas North Americans and Europeans love: sweet dessert bananas, à la Bananas Foster, which are usually eaten raw. I’m not talking about plantains, the banana’s firmer, starchier cousins, which are often cooked like potatoes in Africa and Latin America.

Sweet dessert bananas have been an American favorite almost since they first appeared on grocery shelves in the mid-19th century. Imported from Central America and the Caribbean, bananas were available as a luxury item following the Civil War — and were sold peeled, sliced, and wrapped in foil for 10 cents each (the equivalent of about $2 today). By the late 1800s, they’d become inexpensive substitutes for all-American apples. Twenty years later, ordinances outlawed peels on sidewalks as a public nuisance. Only in recent years have processed snack foods dented the domestic appetite for bananas.

The backstory to bananas in every kitchen, however, is a tale of agribusiness woe. Many writers have chronicled the banana’s role in Third World politics and environmental destruction; two of the most recent banana-ologies are Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World and Peter Chapman’s [%bookLink code=9781841958811 "Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World"].

I never imagined the humble banana shaped much more than a fruit salad. But as Koeppel and Chapman tell it, maverick banana barons invented mass production, monoculture, and the modern multinational corporation. The biggest and baddest banana company, United Fruit, spearheaded approaches to cultivating and transporting delicate bananas with innovations, such as the first refrigerated fleets, atmosphere-controlled storage rooms to control ripening, and ship-to-shore radio systems to coordinate harvesting and shipping. When disease and fungus threatened crops, United Fruit engineered an immense industrial pesticide-delivery system. 

As American-owned plantations spread through Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Panama, banana barons controlled and sometimes destroyed nations. They exploited labor and exposed workers to lethal toxins. They deployed thug power and the Central Intelligence Agency to prop up friendly dictatorships (hence the term “banana republic”) and bring uncooperative governments to heel. 

The fingerprints of United Fruit alone are all over a 1911 coup in Honduras, the brutal suppression and murder of workers during a strike in Colombia in 1929, and a bloody, CIA-engineered overthrow of the first democratically elected president of Guatemala in 1954. And that’s just the tip of the banana plant.

Even today, banana multinationals leave an ugly wake. In 2007, Chiquita (formerly United Fruit) was fined $25 million by the U.S. Department of Justice for making payments to an “acknowledged terrorist organization” in Colombia — tough guys protecting the fruit company’s interests. And Dole (formerly Standard Fruit) was sued in U.S. courts for using chemicals that render workers sterile. But still we love our bananas.

h3. Banana propaganda

My dad spent some of his earliest years among broad-leafed banana plants in Panama, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Army. He remembers an enormous bunch of green bananas always hanging off the back porch, ripening yellow and a little brown in the sun. “I’ve known about brown dots since I was four,” he told me recently. His pre-Depression years were filled with perfect sweet bananas and stories of big hairy spiders hiding in bunches. But most of us have no firsthand memories of equatorial banana culture, and much of what we know and feel about the sunny fruit has been systematically planted in our brains to the soundtrack of the unshakeable Chiquita banana jingle. 

It’s not just that we put bananas on cereal as directed by advertisements, or that we make banana pudding from a recipe on the Nilla Wafers box (my brother’s birthday choice), or that we believe fruit shipped in refrigerated containers should never be refrigerated at home (a company ploy to shorten shelf life and drive sales). No, banana companies have left nothing to chance or taste buds. As avidly as they hacked through jungles, they molded our banana consciousness.

In the beginning, the banana barons had big hurdles to overcome, not least of which was convincing prim Victorian women to peel and eat something that looked like a big, faded yellow penis. Seriously. The campaign to make bananas seem acceptable began with the suggestion that bananas be sliced and consumed with a silver knife and fork, as detailed in Virginia Scott Jenkins’ [%bookLink code=9781560989660 "Bananas: An American History"] (a cultural appraisal of the domestic banana published in 2000). Of course, this wasn’t practical in the long run, and didn’t capitalize on the banana’s brilliant convenience. Soon enough, etiquette mavens condoned a more hands-on approach, and tintypes and cabinet cards showed well-heeled women and children posing with the partially peeled fruit. 

As early as the 1920s, United Fruit had an education department supplying schools with nutrition charts, pro-banana coloring books, and maps of banana-growing regions. Between 1955 and 1962, Jenkins writes, United Fruit created nearly 15 million pieces of banana literature for public schools. The schools themselves paid for the privilege of incorporating this propaganda into lesson plans. 

Cookbooks and information pamphlets were another component of the marketing campaign. Palm-sized banana booklets, dating back to before 1900, provided banana “histories” (aka company propaganda) and nutrition facts as well as recipes, including pairings of bananas with lamb, scallops, or chops. Bacon-wrapped bananas were among the combinations included in Eight New Banana Recipes Guaranteed to Start Conversation,_ published in 1930.

[[block(sidebar).

h1. Banana arcana

Over the course of three decades, Ann (“Anna Banana”) Mitchell Lovell has accumulated more than 4,000 banana artifacts — and she shares them with the public via her online museum, the Washington Banana Museum. Her collection includes antique posters, postcards, photos, cookbooks, advertising, and classroom materials, as well as such quirky items as plastic Groucho Marx glasses with rubber banana noses.

]]

As those unfamiliar recipes suggest, the banana companies failed in their effort to persuade Americans to incorporate bananas as a meat or starch substitute at the dinner table. While bananas and plantains are staples in Africa and Latin America, in the U.S. the banana remains essentially a breakfast food, a snack, or a dessert ingredient. 

h3. The clone wars

For all of our banana passion, the Cavendish variety we enjoy is apparently a pale imitation of the larger (“never less than nine inches,” according to one slogan) and more flavorful import our grandparents consumed, the Gros Michel. The early banana men vetted the varieties around them and centered their cultivating attentions exclusively on the “Big Mike,” which had broad taste appeal and traveled without much bruising, making it ideal for mass production. That’s the banana they took out of the jungle. 

Almost as soon as the Big Mike became the Big Mac of bananas (Chapman’s play on words), it was hounded by nasty fungi and pests, most of which could be “controlled” through the heavy use of toxic chemicals. But worst of all was Panama disease, discovered in 1900. This soil-borne microbe attacks the banana plant’s roots, choking off its water supply. The disease has no chemical antidote. 

Mass-market bananas are especially vulnerable to disease. While wild species have fruits with seeds, the Big Mike and the Cavendish are asexual, seedless, and sterile. New banana plants are grown from cuttings taken from underground stems. This means bananas are essentially clones of each other. All Big Mikes, like all Cavendishes, share the same genetic strengths and the same weaknesses. What affects one affects them all — and usually pretty rapidly.

“Without sexual reproduction to re-combine its genes in new arrangements, the banana has become more vulnerable to disease,” Chapman writes. “This has been made worse by the commercial fixation of producing a single variety everywhere.”

The only temporary fix for Panama disease has been untainted soil. So for most of the last century, the expansion of the banana lands through Central and South America has been an act of trying to outrun the plague. Infected plantations were abandoned (as were the villages and people that had grown up around them) and new ground put under cultivation until Panama disease found its way to the new plantation, which it always did. By 1960, Big Mike had lost the race. It was extinct as a commercial product.

In the 1950s, Standard Fruit began cultivating the Cavendish as a Panama disease-resistant, mass-market alternative. Eventually, United Fruit did the same. And for a time, it seemed a giant microbial bullet had been dodged. But Panama disease, unlike the bananas it attacks, can re-combine genes and develop variations. And it did, and that variation is lethal for the Cavendish.

So here’s the precipice for banana lovers: The Cavendish, which accounts for 99 percent of all U.S., Canadian, and European banana imports, is headed for extinction with no commercially viable replacement.

[[block(sidebar).

h1.Featured recipe




]]

Genetic researchers have been hard at work to find a way to build Panama disease resistance into the Cavendish or to add Cavendish’s commercial qualities to a wild alternative. Unfortunately, because these cultivars are seedless, breeding for genetic variation is difficult. There is no solution on the horizon. Chapman puts the demise of the Cavendish within a decade; Koeppel gives us a little more time by a decade or two.

When I try to imagine markets without bunches of cheerful Cavendish bananas, I am of two minds. I mourn the loss of the familiar, convenient fruit. No more banana bread or fresh banana pudding or banana-and-Nutella crêpes. I regret all those wasted bananas of my youth. 

But I also know that easy access to bananas in Seattle, Minneapolis, and Boston has come at too high a price for the people and the environments of banana-producing countries — not to mention the future havoc the industry’s collapse might cause. 

In North America, we have a rich variety of domestic fruit; apples, oranges, stone fruit, berries, and the like all provide nourishment, even nostalgia. Still, in the comfort department, the banana has no substitute.

p(bio). Lisa Wogan is a Seattle-based writer and editor.


reference-image, l