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22 april 2016

Lorna Piatti-Farnell establishes the banana's ubiquity in her "global history" Banana: ubiquity not just on market stalls the world over, but in terms of economic impact, symbolic resonance, and culinary versatility.

It's an improbable history. Wild bananas are shrimpy things full of hard seeds. Extensive cross-breeding over many centuries was necessary to produce edible bananas, and as Dan Koeppel has explored, once produced these banana varieties must be propagated by cloning lest they hybridize back to seediness. Monoculture leaves the banana especially vulnerable to blight. (Piatti-Farnell does not explore this precarious dynamic as thoroughly as Koeppel does, but she does put it squarely before the reader.) Only through heroic efforts have banana cultivators been able to supply the world with fruit; but supply it they have. Awkwardly phallic, leathery-skinned, easily-bruised, ephemeral bananas flood out of tropical zones and form the bases of breakfasts and desserts from Tasmania to Estonia.

And not just breakfasts, of course. Plantains are a major part of diets in West Africa and the Caribbean, in some places a major carbohydrate akin to rice or potatoes in other cultures. Most of the recipes that Piatti-Farnell prints in Banana are for desserts with, well, dessert bananas, or curries and fried sides containing plantain. Fried plantain is delicious, and readily available in Texas; I should cook it more often, but I simply didn't grow up with it, and it rarely occurs to me.

Discussions of bananas are impossible without considering links between politics and repressive economic systems. Piatti-Farnell succinctly considers the banana as first an intercropped staple food for slaves who grew more portable commodities, and later a huge export commodity in their own right. You can keep bees in your New England backyard or goats on your ranch in Alberta, but you cannot grow bananas outside the tropics (and not everywhere even in the tropics, as they need water, drainage, and protection from extreme heat as well as cold).

Piatti-Farnell writes more about pop-culture appropriations of her chosen food than many other writers in the Reaktion Edible series. Bananas have served (often suggestively) in advertising. They feature in the hit novelty song "Yes! We Have No Bananas." Josephine Baker wore a banana skirt and Miss Chiquita sang a jingle that will not die. In a popular animated series, bananas wore pajamas. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the Banana Splits, singers of another theme song that will not out from my brain. I imagine Piatti-Farnell doesn't include them because at the end of the day, Bingo, Fleegle, Drooper and Snork had pretty much no connection to bananas.

Piatti-Farnell includes a wry half-chapter on the question of whether banana peels constitute a slipping hazard. It is a given of silent film comedy that a banana peel is the slipperiest thing on earth. I still feel somewhat queasy if I see a banana peel on a street or in a parking lot: it looks like a sure harbinger of broken bones. But I've never slipped on a banana peel and am not sure I've even ever stepped on one. Piatti-Farnell invokes Mythbusters to the effect that banana peels aren't much more slippery than any other kind of vegetable debris. But to see a banana peel is to fall under the spell of something sinister and insidious.

Piatti-Farnell, Lorna. Banana: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2016.