In the late 19th century, bananas, a fruit that had been popular for thousands of years suddenly became a mass-market sensation.
However, just a few decades after it was popularized, the industry had to completely change what was grown due to a pestilence.
As a result, the bananas that most people eat today are very different than the bananas that everyone ate before the second world war.
Learn more about bananas, and why your grandparents didn’t eat the same kind, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
There is a great deal of uncertainty regarding the origin of the banana. It isn’t as if there is a whole lot of archeological evidence of bananas and if you ever had bananas in your kitchen for more than a few days, you can probably understand why.
The location that most people agree was probably the home to the banana was Papua New Guinea, and it might have first been domesticated around 10,000 years ago.
The domestication of the banana probably occurred well before the domestication of rice. Bananas are actually pretty easy to grow in tropical climates so long as you have reasonably good soil.
While the banana plant may have originated in Papua New Guinea, that wasn’t where it was popularized and spread.
The best guess, and again it is a guess as is everything about early bananas, is that bananas found their way to what is today the Philippines and from there they rapidly spread throughout Southeast Asia and Oceania around 10,000 to 7,000 years ago.
The spread of the banana is very difficult to track, but we do know that wherever it went, people created new hybrids and varietals.
Most people aren’t aware of it, but there are a large number of banana varietals around the world. It is shocking because unlike other fruits like apples, most people only eat one kind of banana.
They come in all shapes and sizes. In the genus Musa, which is where all bananas are classified, there are over 50 different species and over 1000 subspecies.
In addition to yellow bananas, you can find some that are brown, green, red, and even blue. The Blue java banana supposedly has a texture similar to ice cream and tastes a bit like vanilla, but I can’t say I’ve ever had one.
We begin to know more about bananas as they start to appear in ancient writings. They appeared all over Southeast Asia and South Asia about 2,000 years after they were domesticated.
Buddhist texts from around 600 BC mention bananas. We know Alexander the Great encountered bananas when he arrived in India.
Arab traders brought bananas to eastern Africa in the 5th and 6th centuries. Islamic Moors brought bananas with them when they conquered the Iberian peninsula, and for a time the bananas grown in Grenada were considered the best in the Arab world.
The word banana is believed to be of African origin. It probably comes from the word “banan” in the Wolof language from what is today Senegal, and from there it became banana in Spanish and Portuguese.
It was the Spanish and Portuguese who brought bananas to the Americans. As it did in pretty much every tropical climate, it flourished in places such as Brazil and in the Caribbean.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century, however, that bananas became big business. Up until that point, they weren’t a major crop. They were grown for local food and very limited export. They simply couldn’t survive the long journey on most wooden sailing ships.
They were popularized by the United Fruit Company out of the United States.
I previously did an entire episode on the creation of Banana Republics in Central America, which were primarily created by the United Fruit Company bribing and arm twisting the governments there.
I’m not going to rehash the story, but suffice it to say that bananas suddenly became big business. Big enough to influence governments.
What I do want to focus on in this episode is the type of banana that they grew.
The banana varietal which became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century was the Gros Michel, or as it was colloquially known in the United States, the “Big Mike”.
The Gro Michel had a lot of properties which made it a great banana for export. It had a thick rind, which made it relatively durable, and it grew in tight bunches, which made it easy to ship.
Most importantly, it had a great taste, which was one of the big reasons why it became so popular so fast.
That varietal spread quickly and soon it was the dominant banana grown all over the world for export. Smaller varietals were still grown for local, domestic consumption, but the Gros Michel was the one that drove the industry.
As can happen when you rely on a single monocrop, it is subject to disease, and that is exactly what happened.
Sometime in the 19th century, a fungus is believed to have appeared in Southeast Asia and began to spread amongst certain banana varietals.
It was reported in Australia as early as 1878 and it eventually found its way to Central America. The fungus was Fusarium oxysporum, or as it commonly became known, Panama Disease.
It was a nasty fungus that had a particular fondness for the Gros Michel banana. It is a wilting disease that would cause the entire plant to die. Not just that, but if infected bananas were to get on a ship, they could destroy the entire shipment en route, and possibly destroy everything in the warehouse when it arrived.
For several decades, banana plantations managed to keep it somewhat in check, even though the fungus was resistant to fungicides.
In the early 20th century it began to cause problems with the banana supply.
In fact, the song, “Yes, We Have No Bananas” was written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn about a Greek store owner who had no bananas in stock, and also began every sentence with the word, “yes”.
It was number 1 on the record charts for five weeks in 1923.
The problem with Panama Disease didn’t go away. By the early 1950s, it began to devastate large plantations all over Central America, which was, and still is, the biggest banana-growing region in the world.
Hundreds of thousands of acres were taken out of production due to Panama Disease across multiple countries.
Soon, wholesalers didn’t even want to sell bananas lest they get an infected bunch.
Panama Disease is to this day one of the most devastating blights to affect any agricultural crop in recent memory.
What was needed was a new banana varietal that was resistant to Panama Disease.
This was found in, of all places, a greenhouse in England. It was the Cavendish banana.
The Cavendish was named after William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who received the bananas in 1834 from what is today the country of Mauritius. He grew the bananas in the greenhouse at his home in Chatsworth House.
The Cavendish banana went into commercial production in 1909, but it never really took off until the great banana crisis of the 1950s.
The Cavendish banana was slightly larger, a bit more curved, and had a bit blander taste. Most importantly, it was resistant to Panama Disease.
The Cavendish went into production and quickly became ‘the’ banana for export.
Many people who were around back then will swear that the bananas they had growing up tasted better than the bananas of today. They aren’t crazy. It really was a totally different banana varietal.
Today, 47% of all bananas produced worldwide are Cavendish bananas, but that constitutes the vast majority of bananas for export. 87% of all bananas which are grown worldwide are for domestic consumption, not for export.
The problem which took the Gros Michel out of production might now do the same thing to the Cavendish. There is a strain of Panama Disease called Tropical Race 4, which is now starting to attack Cavendish Bananas.
Both the Gros Michel and the Cavendish don’t have seeds, so they have to be propagated by cloning. This means that the genetic diversity of both varietals is very low because they can’t reproduce sexually.
Most banana varietals actually do have seeds in them, sometimes quite large.
Researchers are currently working on genetically modifying or cross-breeding a version of the Cavendish, or possibly even bringing back the Gros Michel, that would be more resistant to Panama Disease.
So, if bananas suddenly taste different in the future, there will probably be a reason for it.
One of the cultural memes about bananas has been the use of banana peels in cartoons as a way of making people slip and fall.
Personally, I don’t recall ever seeing someone slip and fall on a banana peel, so I never understood the reference.
However, it really was a thing at one point. In the early 20th century when bananas were becoming popular, it was common for people to just toss the peel onto the ground. A fresh banana peel isn’t that big of a deal, but as it started to rot, it becomes a slimy, slippery mess.
While it was mostly a Vaudeville gag, the city of Saint Louis, Missouri actually outlawed the “throwing or casting of a banana rind on public thoroughfares.”
In 2014, the Ig Nobel Prize was awarded to two Japanese researchers who actually measured the coefficient of friction of a banana peel on a linoleum surface.
Bananas are also radioactive. Yes, all of them are. However, this is nothing to be worried about. The radioactivity comes from a naturally occurring isotope, potassium-40. Bananas, avocados, and even you are all naturally radioactive.
Physicist Gary Mansfield of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory created what he called the Banana Equivalence Dose, or BED, as a way of explaining small doses of radiation to the public.
One Banana Equivalence Dose is equal to 0.1 microsieverts. Or, to put it in more understandable terms, the radiation from one banana is the equivalent of 1% of the daily natural exposure to radiation most people receive.
The annual radiation leakage from a nuclear power plant is 6.8 BED a day, an x-ray would be 40 BED, an average commercial flight is 400 BED, and a CT scan is 70,000 BED.
A lethal dose of radiation would be 35 million Banana Equivalence Doses.
There is one other banana-related topic that I should probably address. What is the difference between a banana and a plantain?
Well, for all practical purposes, they are just different varietals of the same thing. A banana is just a sweeter, dessert fruit that doesn’t need to be cooked.
A plantain is a tougher, more starchy version that usually does need to be cooked. They are usually baked, boiled, or fried. Plantains are commonly served in the Caribbean in dishes like mofongo, as well as in Central America, and parts of Africa.
The various banana varietals exist along a spectrum, so there is no clear cut point where something is a banana or a plantain.
One of my fondest banana memories, if that is indeed a thing, was traveling through the islands of the Pacific where fresh lady finger bananas would be picked right off the tree for breakfast.
Bananas have become a staple crop for the entire world. They are a quick and easy snack that people of all ages love, and it is now a multi-billion dollar business.
It is all due to a plant that was domesticated 10,000 years ago in a valley in Papua New Guinea.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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Thanks, Hardinherp. My oratorical ability comes from the fact that I used to perform Shakespeare. My performance of Richard II actually received five curtain calls. Now, however, look at me. I’m just a lowly indie podcaster.
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