The following article is republished from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader.
(Image credit: Steve Hopson)
According to one legend, the fruit that Eve found irresistible in the Garden of Eden was not an apple, but a banana. Is it true? Who knows? But for thousands of years, the banana has been a source of pleasure …and sometimes trouble.
HOW THEY SPREAD
* Bananas are believed to have originated in the rain forests of Southeast Asia, where a variety of species still grow.
* Arab traders brought the banana to the Middle East and Africa in the seventh century. But these weren’t the large fruit we know today -they were just a few inches in length. In fact, some historians believe “banana” comes from banan, the Arabic words meaning “finger.”
* By the late 1400s, bananas were a staple food along the western coast of Africa where Portuguese sailors collected plants and brought them to the Canary Islands, between Africa and Spain.
* In 1516 Tomás de Berlanga, a Spanish priest, brought banana stalks to the New World, to the island of Hispañiola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). And he took plants with him to the mainland when he was made bishop of Panama in 1534.
* Another priest, Vasco de Quiroga, brought banana plants from Hispañiola to Mexico in the mid-16th century. From there, bananas spread and flourished through the Caribbean basin, leading many to believe -erroneously- that they were native to the region.
COMING TO AMERICA
Despite the banana’s popularity in the tropics, it remained virtually unknown in the United States until the late 1800s. It was formally introduced to the American public at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which included a 40-acre display of tropical plants. A local grocer sold individual bananas, wrapped neatly in tinfoil, for 10¢ -an hour’s wage at the time. The fruit would remain an expensive luxury for years.
But bananas would have never become a popular snack food if it hadn’t been for a few enterprising entrepreneurs. Cape Cod sea captain Lorenzo Baker was the first merchant to successfully capitalize on the banana when he discovered the curious fruit in Jamaica and brought a load of the to New Jersey in 1870. He sold 160 bunches for a substantial profit and soon began shipping them back to the East Coast on a regular basis. In 1885 he and Boston businessman Andrew Preston formed the Boston Fruit Company.
Banana men: Lorenzo Baker, Andrew Preston, and Minor Keith.
GETTING ON TRACK
At about the same time, an ambitious 19-year-old from Brooklyn discovered bananas, too. In 1871 Minor Keith and two of his brothers went to Costa Rica to work for their uncle, who had won a government contract to build a railroad line from the capital, San José, to the port city of Limón. It was a treacherous project over miles of dense mountainous jungle and ultimately claimed the lives of some 5,000 workers, including Keith’s brothers and uncle.
In spite of the hardship, Keith persisted. And as the railroad construction proceeded, he planted banana plants on any and all nearby land. Why? The quick-growing fruit was a cheap way to feed the workers.
The railroad was completed in 1890, but Keith was in financial trouble. The Costa Rican government refused to pay him, and there weren’t enough passengers to support the line. What could he do? Forced to find another source of revenue, Keith decided to experiment with the bananas he’d planted: his railroad could cheaply transport them to Limón, where they could be shipped to markets in the United States. The experiment was so successful that the banana business quickly overshadowed his meager passenger service.
Despite a decade of success, in 1899 Keith once again found himself in trouble. His financial partner went bankrupt, leaving him without enough money to run the railroad. So, as a way to preserve his business, he went to Boston and arranged with Lorenzo Baker and Andrew Preston to merge their two companies. (The company they formed, the United Fruit Company, still exists as part of United Brands.)
By the end of the century, advances in refrigerated steamship and rail transportation made it possible to ship bananas to all parts of North America. As improved production led to lower prices, the United Fruit Company was poised for a banana boom. Now affordable, the banana quickly became a popular snack, and production shifted into high gear. But there was a dark side to the business that the American public knew little about.
Behind the scenes, the banana business played a huge part in the economy and politics of Central America. The United Fruit Company, as well as several other banana companies such as Standard Fruit (now a part of Dole), made sweetheart deals with Central American dictators, buying or leasing vast tracts of land at bargain prices and paying very little, if any, taxes.
While bananas created wealth in Central America, it mostly enriched government officials -without benefitting the common people. In 1910, American author O. Henry coined the term banana republic, and by the 1930s, it was commonly used to describe the corrupt Central American countries controlled largely by banana companies.
U.S. foreign policy stood firmly behind the banana companies, too. Under President William Howard Taft (1909-1913), the goal of diplomacy was to support (or create) stable governments favorable to U.S. interests. And later, when “dollar diplomacy” failed, the U.S. government resorted to “gunboat diplomacy.” American troops were sent in to ensure the pro-U.S. outcome of elections in Honduras, Nicaragua, and other Latin American countries.
In the 1950s, for example, Jacobo Arbenz, a progressive Guatemalan president, proposed reclaiming lands owned by the United Fruit Company and other large landowners and distributing them to landless peasants. It never happened -in 1954, citing the threat of communism, the United States backed a military coup that ousted Arbenz and ended the immediate threat of land reform.
But times were changing for the banana companies. Worker strikes led to labor reforms. The monopoly of the United Fruit Company was broken by an antitrust suit in 1958 that forced it to sell parts of the company to competitors and Guatemalan entrepreneurs.
Today, imperialist politics have taken a backseat to more modern business practices. But bananas are still big business, and remain America’s most popular fruit.
* Americans eat an average of 75 bananas per year per person.
* The banana split was invented in 1904 by Dr. David Strickler, a drugstore pharmacist in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
* Technically the banana is a berry.
(Image credit: Flickr user Geof Wilson)
* There are several hundred varieties of bananas worldwide, but the one most of us slice on our cereal is the Cavendish. The Cavendish is favored by commercial producers for its size, flavor, and most importantly, resistance to disease.
* Ever wonder why bananas have no seeds? Because of natural mutations, the kind we eat don’t have any. The dark dots in the center are all that’s left. (They reproduce by underground stems, or rhizomes.)
* A banana has about 110 calories and is high in fiber, potassium, and vitamin C.
* The banana has never been a Fruit of the Month selection.
* The song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas” was an enormous hit in 1923 -selling at a rate of 25,000 copies of sheet music per day. The popularity of the song spurred a new craze: dancing the Charleston on banana peel-covered floors.
* A few forgotten banana products: banana wine, banana flour (cheaper than wheat flour), banana ketchup, banana pickles, banana vinegar, and Melzo, a powdered banana drink mix.
* To let the public know that bananas should be allowed to ripen at room temperature, not in the refrigerator, in 1944 United Fruit commissioned a song and a character: Chiquita Banana. The song was so popular that it was once played on the radio 376 times in one day. And Chiquita herself was named “the girl we’d most like to share our foxhole with” by American servicemen.
This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader.
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