Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The super banana is coming.

Bananas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Of bananas and daiquiris and long lunches

First, a brief history of the banana in the US:

The Banana: More American Than Apple Pie
By James Castagnera
A bunch of them sits on our kitchen counter top right now. At the moment, the bunch is yellow with some green streaks. I like them that way. A soft banana from inside a brown-dappled skin makes me queasy. Memories of a friend’s toddler squishing an over-ripe banana and stuffing it into his nostrils and ears are indelibly etched inside my brain.
Americans on average eat about 25 pounds of bananas per year. How anybody knows this is a mystery to me. However, the data point is believable. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that every American eats the same species of banana. So do Asians and Europeans. The Cavendish banana is the sole species sold worldwide. For growers, that’s not only weird; it’s worrisome.
The Cavendish’s predecessor was the Gros Michel (Big Mike). Until the 1920s Big Mike ruled the produce shelves. Then a fungus called Panama disease obliterated Big Mike. The Cavendish up until then had been “dissed” as less savory and harder to ship without bruising. When Mike went down, Cavendish climbed to the top of the heap. United Fruit and Standard Fruit figured out how to crate and ship the Cavendish, so that it ripened just in time to arrive on America’s grocery shelves.
I know all this thanks to a new book called “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World” by a travel/adventure writer named Dan Koeppel, that was published in January. Koeppel chronicles not only the biology, but also the politics, of the banana. Brilliant marketing by American entrepreneurs made the curvaceous yellow fruit, Chiquita if you like, a formidable rival to the good old American apple. To price their product competitively, after shipping it thousands of miles, these Yankees required Central American labor in plentiful supply at slave wages. No wonder, then, that “Yanqui, go home!” remains the motto of so many Latin Americans. United Fruit in the 1950s collaborated with the CIA in toppling unfriendly (read “reformist”) governments in the aptly named Banana Republics.
These Cold War-era shenanigans were lampooned brilliantly in Woody Allen’s 1971 film (what else would it be called?) “Bananas.” Allen’s Fielding Mellish blunders his way into a rebel camp in hot pursuit of Nancy (Louise Lasser), a lefty lassie for whom he has the hots. A curious triviality of “Bananas” is that throughout the entire film you never see one. Never you mind. The fruit, as much or more than America’s fear of Communism, was the back-story behind the conflicts that wracked Central America throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Despite its political prowess and monopoly status on the world’s produce shelves, the Cavendish may go the way of its predecessor. A prime example of bio-non-diversity, the best friend of our breakfast cereal is being attacked by the same incurable fungus that brought down Big Mike. Most experts believe it’s not if but when the Cavendish will succumb. Meanwhile scientists are seeking a resistant hybrid that will one day fill the impending gastronomic gap.
Following heartbreak, assassination, revolution, and a criminal trial, Fielding Mellish’s Odyssey ends in a honeymoon bed with Nancy (the marriage’s consummation delicately reported by Howard Cosell for “Wide World of Sports”). Whether either the Cavendish banana or the still-impoverished republics where it’s grown have happy days ahead remains to be seen.
As Castro ends his 50-year reign, releasing power to brother Raul, Cuba poses a threat to no one anymore. Venezuela’s eccentric Preside Hugo Chavez pesters Uncle Sam with a more worrisome threat of withholding petroleum, but his efforts at exporting revolution so far have gone nowhere. And I can eat berries on my granola, if needs be.
So, if the Cavendish goes the way of the Gros Michel, I’ll enjoy my cereal with blueberries or raisins, unperturbed by Central America’s fate. I’ll still munch my Cap’n Crunch while recalling with a smile my favorite Lou Costello shtick:
Costello: How much are those bananas?
Botchagaloop: Nickle apiece, three for a quarter.
Costello: I’ll take three.
Botchagaloop takes Lou’s quarter and hands over two bananas.
Costello: Hey, that’s only two.
Botchagaloop (counting): One-a banana, two-a banana, that makes three-a banana.
Lou takes his two bananas and walks off, as Botchagaloop pockets the two bits.
How do you like them apples, folks?

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