American Plate - Bite #62: Bananas

Saturday, August 8, 2015
It's fortunate that of the multitude of fruits that we eat these days, The American Plate chose bananas and blueberries to symbolize our country's historical relationship with that category of the food world. I detest cherries, but if they'd been selected for the book, I'd have gritted my teeth and suffered through it. Happily, instead of that tedious chore, I get to enjoy my absolutely favorite fruit. Man, do I love bananas. And I'm not alone in that love; bananas have been popular for what seems like forever. But how did they rise to prominence, and why are they listed in the book's Progressive Era section?

It's not as if bananas were suddenly discovered at the turn of the 20th century. Plenty of people were eating them in the tropical areas they were growing, and cultivating them as far back as 600 A.D. in Africa. The spread of bananas more or less followed the spread of Islam, as Arab traders made their way to Europe. Portugal introduced them to their colonies in South and Central America, where they gained another foothold.

As you've no doubt noted, bananas spoil quickly, so it's no surprise that they didn't make the jump to North America until the 1880s, when new technology allowed steamships to have refrigerated storage tanks. Suddenly, it was a whole new ballgame. Bananas began a rapid climb in popularity, thanks to a number of factors. Not only are they tasty and packed with vitamins, but as we saw in the entry on hot dogs, this was a time marked by great concern over the conditions in which food was being prepared. What could be better than a snack that has no toxic additives, and comes in its own germ-free wrapper?

Health wasn't the only public relations triumph that bananas enjoyed. They also meant big money for businesses that could establish a presence in Central America. These businesses were helped by president Theodore Roosevelt, who was expanding America's military and economic power in the region. Marketing played its part, too. Ellis Island was reaching its peak in the number of immigrants it was processing each day, and the United Fruit Company hit upon the idea of giving each new arrival a free banana as a welcome present and an inducement to become attached to them.

That tactic would have totally worked on me, by the way, though by this point in time, bananas would have been as exotic to American citizens as to the immigrants who were just arriving. It didn't take long for either group to latch on to these delicious fruits, and our country has never looked back, turning bananas into a dominating presence in modern produce sections.

It's no accident that bananas are among the first Bites to get logged, as I'm always eating them in one form or another. They're a perfect portable snack, but as you can see in the picture above, I like using them in recipes as well. That banana bread I've made a number of times, and has a healthy amount of spice. I like banana to be the star ingredient, though, and put no fewer than four into a single loaf. I also wanted to get experimental, so you can see my first attempt at Bananas Foster, as well. It wound up being fairly tasty, though I'd probably opt to make it a little sweeter next time.

There's no shortage of exotic foods in the world, and I'm excited to try the great majority of them. Part of me wishes I could see bananas as the wonder those turn-of-the-century Americans must have seen them as. But then I remember that far from them being a rare and strange marvel, now I can take a quick stroll to the local market and easily load up on the best fruit in the world. So I guess this is a pretty nifty time to be living, too.