Exploring Bananas: The Commonplace Fruit With a Complex History
Comparing Apples and Oranges Is Bananas
Did you know that bananas are the most popular fresh fruit in the United States, outselling apples and oranges? We consume roughly 28 pounds per person each year. But unlike apples and oranges, bananas are not a local produce. They’re grown thousands of miles away; transported by plane, boat, and train across oceans, international borders and highways; and (incredibly) are available 365 days of the year. One would think that such extremes would make bananas one of the most costly items in your shopping cart, but the truth is they are one of the cheapest.
How can that be?
It’s time to take a look at the mysterious, confusing, and tragic history of the banana.
Indeed some people even believe the banana is proof of God's benevolence. They point out how easy it is to handle and bite; they marvel at its ready-to-use tab for wrapper-removal; they extol its pleasing taste; and they point to its sell-by-date mechanism - its skin turns black. This is celestial confection-making at its best, it is claimed, and shows clear evidence of a deity who created the world for humans.— The Guardian, June 30, 2002
In The Beginning
As like many fruits at our local produce markets, bananas originated in Southeast Asia, in the areas now known as Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Guinea. These abundant fruits provided food, fiber and even building materials for hunter-gatherers thousands of years ago. Researchers believe that the banana was one of the first plants to be tamed, perhaps even pre-dating the cultivation of rice. But how did the banana migrate from those island colonies to other parts of the globe? The timeline and mechanics are somewhat blurry.
Was it Javanese sailors, their boats laden with rice, who introduced the banana to Madagascar 2,000 years ago? Perhaps it was Arab merchants engaged in the spice trade to and from Guinea who carried them inland? How did the fruit migrate from Indonesia to India? Both countries are rich in resources and have traded for millennia; an exchange is certainly within the realm of possibility. Of course, none of these are certainties.
But this we do know—when Alexander the Great invaded India in 327 B.C. he found lush crops in the valleys. By the year 200 A.D. bananas were being grown in China but were not readily accepted as a food source. Perhaps the Chinese lack of enthusiasm was because the bananas of 1800 years ago are not the ones that we enjoy today. It was not until 650 A.D. that a cross-pollination of two wild varieties resulted in a sweeter, less pulpy, less seedy cultivar.
By the 15th century, bananas were common throughout tropical regions but were considered a luxury for all but the very rich.
Thomas de Berlanga, a Spanish friar, is credited with introducing bananas to the New World. He planted them in San Domingo in 1516.
On to Great Britain
Thomas Johnson is considered the father of British field botany. He was born in 1600 in Selby and baptized on September 7 of that year. Nothing is known of his childhood or schooling. His story begins again in 1626, London, where he was employed as an apothecary in the Snow Hill area. His work led him to the exploration of herbal remedies and that fascination, in turn, prompted him to lead several botanical expeditions in parts of Wales and England. He sketched, described new specimens in great detail, and single-handedly expanded John Gerard’s “Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes” of 1597 (sic). With the revisions by Johnson, the new 1633 edition expanded to 2,000 pages with almost 2,900 illustrations.
Why is he mentioned in the story of the banana? He was the first person to sell bananas in England, although today the specimen he purchased from Bermuda would be classified as a plantain. Here is his description:
Each of the fruits was not ripe, being green, each of them the bignesse of a large beane, some 5 inches long and an inch and a half in breadth. The stalk is short and like ones little finger. They hang with their heads down, but if you turn them up, they look like a boat. The husk is easily removed. The pulp is white, soft and tender and ate somewhat like a musk melon.
And Then a Centennial Celebration
The City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the meeting place for the Founding Fathers of the United States and has long been regarded as the birthplace of the American Revolution. It was in this city that the First Continental Congress convened and the Declaration of Independence was signed. What place would be more fitting for a celebration of our Nation’s First Centennial than Philadelphia?
That is the question that John L. Campbell, professor of mathematics at Wabash College proposed to the Mayor of Philadelphia in December 1866. There were naysayers, of course, those arguing that adequate funding would be impossible to obtain, that participants might be few, and perhaps the exhibits of our Nation would fare poorly in comparison to those of other nations. Nevertheless, in January 1870 the city council resolved to go forward with plans for an exposition.
The formal name of the Exposition was “The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine,” but everyone revered it as the Centennial Exposition, a celebration of our Nation’s first 100 years, and a look to the future.
Mass-produced products and invention were widely displayed—sewing machines, typewriters, guns, farm equipment, Graham’s revolutionary telephone, the telegraph system, and calculators. A few new food products were also introduced—Heinz ketchup, Hires root beer and…the banana, wrapped in foil and sold for the sky-high price of 10 cents (that’s about $2.00 today).
Think of it—the telephone and telegraph opened up the possibility of shrinking the globe. They were as revolutionary at that time as the internet and social media are for us today. How did the banana fit into this globalized world? Well, no longer were the tropics a mystical, “only-in-one's-imagination” far-away realm. They were now within reach.
The Original Banana Republic
Banana Republic is a clothing retailer, established 1978 in Mill Valley, California (operating under the Gap, Inc. umbrella.) It’s a fun place to shop. But there is another banana republic; the pejorative was coined by American author O. Henry when speaking of Honduras and Guatemala—where labor forces lived in poverty and squalor under a plutocracy of multinational corporations.
Nine years after the centennial celebration in Philadelphia, the Boston Fruit Company initiated the purchase of Central American land for the production of bananas. Local governments were enticed with the prospect of road improvements, agricultural assistance and (of course) thousands of jobs. But as a story in National Geographic explains:
If this sounds like thinly veiled exploitation, it was. And it only increased. As banana demand ballooned, so did profit. The 1907 edition of the Fruit Trade Journal called the U.S. setup in Central America, “an occupation…with ironclad certainty for immense returns of wealth.” That year, American bananas were a $60 million business and growing. Meanwhile, the laborers tasked with managing this demand saw their wages stay low, far below the average American salary at the time, which was $438.
Concurrently American railroad tycoons Minor Keith and his uncle Henry Meiggs began the construction of railroads in Costa Rica. In an effort to furnish food for their workers they established banana plantations. With the rising popularity of the tropical fruit and the (now) obvious easy access to transportation, it wasn’t difficult for the two entrepreneurs to envision the profit that could be made in the export of those bananas. Thus the Tropical Trading & Transport Company was established. In 1899 Minor Keith merged his 50 percent share of the company with Boston Fruit Company. In time the name was changed to United Fruit Company. They controlled 80 to 90 percent of the banana business in the U.S. You know them today as Chiquita Brands International.
...the cultivation and distribution of bananas entail a grim reality of cartels, unions, and governments entangled in human rights abuses, price wars, and trade disputes. This is a familiar setting where the strong international buyer rules over the weak provincial seller.— Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 28, 2010
Following their success in Costa Rica, in 1902 United Fruit acquired large tracts of land in Guatemala. The high temperatures, rainfall, and rich alluvial soils of the area were the perfect environment for large-scale banana production. United Fruit Was given port facilities, import duty exemptions, and real estate tax relief and soon controlled more Guatemalan land than any other group or individual. However, the invasion of the banana industry altered the delicate ecosystem. The fragile undergrowth was removed and fertile soils were drenched with chemicals. Even more disastrous was what happened to the economy of the indigenous people. Farmlands that had once been self-supporting were now dependent on the success or failure of a single crop.
In 1930 General Jorge Ubico assumed dictatorship of the country. He employed a secret police force to control the civilian population and attempted to squelch the democratic process. In 1944 a reformist army staged a coup and Juan Jose Arvalo, an Argentinean philosopher, was elected as president. Arvalo removed the secret police, established farm cooperatives and encouraged voter registration. The next democratic election installed Jacabo Árbenz as president. He supported the reforms of Arvalo and called for a challenge to the monopolistic controls of United Fruit.
As reported in a July 28, 2010 article by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (coha.org)
Jacobo Árbenz launched a land reform program, Decree 900, by confiscating almost 400,000 acres of unused United Fruit land for redistribution to landless peasants. At that time, “only 10% of the land was available for 90% of the population, most of who[m] were Indians.” The United Fruit Company complained to the Eisenhower administration, claiming that Guatemala’s power of eminent domain had been used to unfairly seize its land, particularly infuriating United Fruit by the fact that Árbenz was only prepared to pay the U.S. corporation the artificially low price that United Fruit had assessed its own land for tax purposes, proof of the “evils of communism.”
In response, the United States CIA launched a coup which resulted in the overthrow of Árbenz. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was installed as the new president, and he promptly returned all of the disputed landholdings to United Fruit. Armas was an oppressive dictator and Guatemala plunged into a civil war, the conflict lasting more than 3 decades and costing 200,000 lives.
Sadly the story of Honduras is almost a carbon copy of Guatemala—simply change the names and a few dates. In 1899 United Fruit Company acquired seven small banana plantations in Honduras. This was also the year the Luca, Felix, and Joseph Vaccaro founded the exporter that would ultimately become Standard Fruit Company. (Today United Fruit and Standard Fruit are known as Chiquita and Dole, respectively.)
Prior to these acquisitions, bananas amounted to only 11 percent of Honduras’ exports. But with the domination of external corporations, export growth was phenomenal—from 11 percent in 1892 to 42 percent in 1903, 66 percent in 1913, and an astonishing 80 percent by 1929. Once again land use laws were negotiated and manipulated so that large tracts of prime agricultural land could be controlled.
Another Banana Republic
In 1910 Sam Zemurray (Cuyamel Fruit Company) purchased 15,000 acres of arable land in Honduras. The next year he conspired with Manuel Bonilla (Honduran ex-president) and an American mercenary (Lee Christmas) to overthrow the government of President Miguel Dávila. Zemurray and Bonilla promulgated the story that President Davila was a poor businessman and that his incompetence had caused the indebtedness of Honduras to Great Britain. But the truth was that Davila had colluded with the United Fruit Company (Cuyamel’s competitor) to award them a monopoly contract in exchange for U.S. government loans.
What was the goal of Cuyamel Fruit?—the installation of a militarily-controlled government friendly to foreign business. His foreign business. The coup which unseated Davila rocked the Honduran economy. American fruit companies now controlled not until the entire infrastructure (road, rail, ports, telegraph, and telephone) but the nation as a whole. The U.S. dollar became the legal currency, Lee Christmas was appointed the commander of the Honduran army, and in a hostile takeover, Sam Zemurray assumed control of United Fruit Company.
There Is Hope for a Better Tomorrow
The development of large-scale banana plantains in Central America severely altered the social and economic balance of these fragile nations. Landscapes were transformed, soils poisoned, politicians bought, governments were overthrown, and innocent indigenous peoples thrust into squalor.
The revenue and employment provided by the banana industry are extremely important to Central American economies. However, the environmental, political, and social impacts created by the industry often outweigh the benefits. The demand for perfect, low-cost fruit by industrialized countries has contributed to many of the unsustainable production methods such as increased deforestation and widespread agrochemical use. Consumers in the developed world can push growers to utilize better-growing met— Carrie McCracken “The Impacts of Banana Plantation Development in Central America”
Until I began to research this topic, I honestly had given not a moment's thought of how and why bananas are so inexpensive. In my Pollyanna world, I assumed that it was the retail grocery stores who were lowering the cost, using bananas as an enticement to shop there (a loss-leader). I have been simultaneously enlightened and saddened.
But there is an alternative. From now on I will be purchasing fair trade bananas, sourced directly from family farms, with consideration for health and well-being of the farmer and nurturing of the environment.
You might be wondering how where to find "fair trade" produce. I have had success at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and at natural-food stores in my area. A quick Google search also revealed that the Lidl stores (which has outlets in the U.S. and Europe) also sells fair-trade produce. It's not as convenient as my local Safeway, but it's a choice I can be happy with.
I've barely scratched the surface of the tragic story of banana production. Tropical storms, famine, and blight have also endangered the crops and the welfare of the people who depend upon them for not only their livelihood but also their own sustenance.
There is so much more I could tell, but this article would balloon to 10,000 words. If you care to learn more about these issues, I suggest this link and any of the sources that are listed below.
There are thousands, if not millions, of recipes available for banana bread, muffins, cookies, and pancakes. You won't find those here. I have chosen these recipes because they are unique and utilize the fruit in imaginative ways.
Do you think that ketchup is always red and always made from tomatoes? Well, I have a surprise for you. Almost any fruit (other than citrus) can be turned into ketchup. Banana makes a surprisingly thick, tangy sauce, more like the condiment originally created in the British Empire hundreds of years ago.
The author of this post lives in India and lists "raw banana" as one of the main ingredients for these pancakes. In the U.S. (and perhaps other parts of the globe) we know them as plantains. Plantains are another form of banana (let's call them close cousins)—not as sweet and a bit more starchy. They are always cooked, never eaten raw.
As I explained above, plantains are NOT interchangeable with bananas. While our topic fruit is sweet and creamy, plantains are more starchy and meld wonderfully with savory foods.
This creamy soup is reminiscent of sweet potato or yam soup and is perfect for those on a Paleo diet.
Many recipes for scones (and those who eat the scones) suffer from sugar overload. This breakfast treats contain a touch of maple to enhance the fruit flavor, but banana provides the true sweetness. Don't omit the walnuts from the topping. I might also suggest reducing the maple syrup in the cream cheese icing to 2 tablespoons. Add a dribble of cream or milk if the icing seems too thick.
I recently did a Google-search on the phrase "banana bread" and received 176 million hits, so I will make the assumption that you don't need my help to find a recipe for banana bread. You probably have one (or five, or more).
But, this is different. This is a yeast bread. The flavor and texture are entirely different from what you have come to know as mere "banana bread". The resulting crumb is soft and tender, creating a delicate slice that makes a wonderful sandwich, or sweetly fragrant piece of toast.
© 2018 Linda Lum