Bananas: An American History

by Virginia Scott Jenkins

Yes! We have the cultural history of bananas!

August 2001

Who would have thought there was so much to say about the modern love affair between America and bananas? I should have known it, though, for at Mathcamp the staff had entire wars based on bananas and the pilfering thereof. We snuck extras out of the cafeteria, hid them in refrigerators, even wrote our names on the peels in a feeble attempt to secure a personal, steady supply. Alas, it was not to be. How did this miracle fruit go from being an exotic food iteam for the rich to the universal snack? Jenkins tells us how, in this very thoroughly researched book.

Pretty much anything you want to know about bananas in the 20th century is here: medical attitudes, recipes, social status, trade wars, banana jokes ("I'm sorry, I can't hear you -- I've got a banana in my ear.") - you name it, it's in here, which is surprising for such a relatively trim book. She's got a slew of references in the back, should you ever wish to check her sources; for the less academic of us, there's also an extensive list of banana songs.

Bananas are such a workaday fruit, we forget how important they have been in reflecting society. With each new medical fad, bananas reinvent themselves as a perfect food; during the period where dirty fruit was a concern, the thick peel of the banana was a boon; when vitamins, minerals, and proteins were seen as important, bananas were found to have such things in abundance; when high-calories and high-fat were a concern, bananas were found to be an energy-full, low-fat snack. Even stranger, at one point in history, bananas were considered a treatment for celiac disease (an extreme form of gluten-intolerance - so basically all breads and grains are inedible to such children, and many died due to malnutrition); during World War II, during which much of the banana supply was cut off, there were stories of frantic parents mobilizing entire towns to round up banana supplies fortheir sick children, sure that their children would die without bananas. And yet , in just a generation previous, parents had been warned against giving =any= raw fruits or vegetables to children under the age of 7. The chapter in which this fascinating material resides is called "Peril and Panacea", which provides a prismatic view of the changing medical atmosphere in America in the 20th century.

A few other details which I found interesting: there were banana cookbooks, one of the recipes being for "Bananas and Bacon" - I kid you not. There's even a picture of it in the book. As well, much of the editorial cartoons and jokes involving banana peels reflected anti-immigrant sentiment, once bananas had become so cheap even the newly arrived poor could afford to eat them. Of course, there are a couple of obligatory "banana as phallus" remarks (explaining why proper young women were to use a knife and fork to eat the offending fruit), but they do not overwhelm. Sometimes a banana is just a banana.

The only other fruit that could possibly have had as much impact on the American psyche is the apple (well, maybe the orange). Though this is a history book, it is far from dry, and Jenkins lets off a couple zingers of her own. If you've ever eaten a banana or know someone who has, this book is for you; so I guess that means about everyone. I have no idea, then, why this isn't at the top of the bestseller list.

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Mary Pat Campbell, last updated Jan 2002