ArtSunday: the fruit that changed the world

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World
by Dan Koeppel
Hudson Street Press
(December 27, 2007)

by Chris Mackowski

I fell for Dan Koeppel’s new book like a man slipping on a banana peel.

Maybe that’s because of the appeal of the cover: a close-up of a banana with a blue sticker on it so identical to a real banana sticker that I had to do a double-take.

I picked it up, peeled open the cover, and read the first line to get a taste of the writing. “If you are an average American, about forty years old, you’re probably approaching banana ten thousand, just as I am,” Koeppel writes.
And with that line, he had me.

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World may sound like hyperbole, but it doesn’t take long to realize Koeppel means it. His excellent book, part feature journalism and part labor of love, unpeels the long, twisted history of the most-eaten fruit on earth.

This is a fruit that has toppled governments. This is a fruit that individuals have lived and died for. This is a fruit that feeds nations.

This is a fruit that may be extinct in just a few decades.

It’s all true, and it’s all there. Koeppel travels the globe to tell the banana’s story, tracing its spread over thousands of years from southeast Asia across the Indian Ocean to Africa and across the Pacific from island to island. Eventually they came to the Americas. It’s a “tangle of the known and unknown,” he writes.

Koeppel even cites scholars who suggest that bananas are not only old, but that they’re the first fruit—as in “The Fruit” from the Garden of Eden that got Adam and Eve into so much trouble. Mistranslations led Renaissance scholars to suggest that fruit was an apple, but “[t]he odds…are also good that nobody—not you, me, or perhaps even your local pastor—has gotten it quite right,” Koeppel writes.

Throughout the book, Koeppel serves as a friendly but non-obtrusive presence. He admires his subject and presents its surprising story with a voice both authoritative and enthusiastic.

The villain of the book—in a story that includes corrupt governments and megacorporations that ravaged land and criminally exploited workers—is actually an insidious blight called Panama Disease that is creeping around the world and killing off bananas. The single variety we eat, called the Cavendish, faces extinction. There are more than one thousand types of bananas found worldwide, “including dozens of wild varieties, many no bigger than your pinky and filled with tooth-shattering seeds,” he says, but none yet serve as an adequate replacement.

“The banana has changed the world, but for all practical purposes, it can’t change itself,” Koeppel says, because the bananas we eat are sterile. One banana is a genetic clone of every other banana. Only through human assistance can the Cavendish reproduce.

And so Koeppel’s book gets into the biology and ecology of bananas, the genetic engineering now being done to try and save them, and the ethical questions that surround it all. (Yes, there are banana ethics.)

And there are banana “unethics,” too, tied mostly to the economic and political histories of the fruit, which are nothing short of stunning. “Bananas caused all this?” a reader may wonder. Yep.

The book also looks at the fruit’s cultural impact. “Everywhere bananas have appeared, they’ve changed the cultures that embraced them,” Koeppel writes, offering a bunch of interesting stories from here in America: the old slapstick gag of slipping on a banana peel (once a legitimate health risk, believe it or not); the old Tinpan Alley song “Yes, We Have No Bananas”; the ubiquitously recognizable “Chiquita Banana” jingle; and the invention of the banana split (several towns still rigorously defend their claims to be the banana split’s hometown). Koeppel has sections about each.

He also writes about banana innovations that seem obvious to us today but which reshaped the industry in ways that shaped the lives of thousands of workers and millions of consumers: shipping bananas in boxes, for instance, or cutting them up and putting them on corn flakes.

As I read, I couldn’t believe I was actually reading a book about bananas—or, even more amazing, that the book was so compelling. This fruit is fascinating. I will never look at that bunch of bananas on the breakfast table the same way again.

Chris Mackowski is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Bonaventure University.

3 replies »

  1. Chris,

    Now, I have to buy another book based on your recommendation…..Oh well, I’ll trust your judgement. I used to eat a lot of bananas, but have switched over to plantains, fried Cuban style.

    Good post.