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17 april 2012

The United States is a rich agricultural country where many kinds of fruit flourish within easy range of large markets: apples, cherries, oranges, grapes. Twentieth-century American groceries, however, included not just those products, but other fruits that can't be grown anywhere in the contiguous 48: pineapples (mostly in canned form), and especially, ubiquitously, bananas. Liking the climate of the very, very tropical equator, bananas nonetheless appeared, and continue to appear, everywhere the most basic foodstuffs are sold in the U.S., 366 days a year. Nor are they some kind of pricey foodie thing: for most of the past century-and-a-quarter, the banana has been the cheapest American fruit. Excess bananas, kept too long out of the refrig-er-ator, are the source of hundreds of thrifty American recipes for banana muffins and banana breads and banana nut loaf. Was there ever a country so intimately bound up with a food that it can't produce for itself?

Rome and the granaries of north Africa, I suppose: and the parallel is noteworthy. As Dan Koeppel demonstrates in his wide-ranging book Banana, the everyday American banana is linked to a complex web of technology, biology, and neo-colonialism; bananas are the fruit of the American empire. And most Americans are aware of this, though we tend to deflect responsibility onto client states and away from the metropolis. "Banana republics" are phony little repressive regimes under the thumb of multinational fruit companies. But what about the republic that eats all those bananas?

The exigence for Banana is not the hemispheric politics of fruit, however. It's instead the coming banana crisis. Most staple foods are on the brink of some kind of crisis or another. Monocultures (bananas are supremely monocultural, almost all of them clones of one another) are critically sensitive to parasites, diseases, and environmental change. Koeppel notes that America has been through a banana crisis once before, one that barely registers in the collective memory. We skated over the previous crisis because a new kind of banana came to our rescue. Next time, we might not be as lucky.

For the first half of the 20th century, the Gros Michel banana, thick-skinned and hardy, came to the U.S. in bunches that grocers hung up for sale. For the past 60 years, after diseases ravaged the Gros Michel, the banana of choice has been the Cavendish, frailer, shipped in individual "hands" in banana boxes. The distribution networks, with allowances for some technological changes, haven't developed much in over a century, though, and bananas are still picked and processed largely by hand. This has meant over a century of low-paid semi-peonage for banana farmers – and lots of mottled fruit wasting away in American lunchboxes, hardly worth the trouble to snarf up before it dissolves into puree.

Now Cavendish bananas are threatened by the intractable "Panama disease," and the world may not find a new all-purpose banana. Perhaps that's a good thing. Instead of devoting most of their territory to the embellishment of American cereal bowls, nations like Guatemala, Honduras, and Ecuador might become self-sufficient, indeed truly independent, for the first time in nearly forever.

Koeppel's book is repetitive, and can be digressive, but it's learned and impassioned. He'd like to see the world change to embrace more local, more sustainable agriculture. Since that's unlikely in many respects, he advocates genetic modification of bananas, to create a truly perfect fruit (sterile, seedless, invulnerable, immortal). I think that Nature would go all Jurassic-Park on the perfect banana, but it's an intriguing position, enabled by the genetic identity of all commercial bananas.

Most other produce in the American larder has been refined to tastelessness by inbreeding. Tomatoes, russet potatoes, Red Delicious apples, and iceberg lettuce have almost no taste at all beyond the chemical basics of acid, sugar, starch, and cellulose. Bananas, as far as my hyposmic nose can determine, however, taste pretty much the same way they did 52 years ago when I was sucking them off a baby spoon. Terroir might be a minor factor, shipping and handling another, but that Cavendish on your counter is an identical trillionuplet of the ones my grandmother peeled for me during the Kennedy Administration.

Given the dependency of bananas on the extreme opposite of biodiversity, Koeppel argues, we might as well throw in our lot with SuperBanana. If developed, the ideal banana is a food that can feed not only our penchant for redolent foundations for our ice cream, but also the carbohydrate needs of entire continents.

Koeppel, Dan. Banana: The fate of the fruit that changed the world. New York: Hudson Street [Penguin], 2008.