Like your fruit locally
grown? Enjoy variety? Prefer non-GMO food?
That's cognitive dissonance for you. The banana you eat is likely from Ecuador and identical to every other banana of its species. Modified oft in the past, banana growers are now trying to save it from extinction-threatening disease - by genetic modification.
All that and far more are in Banana by Dan Koeppel.
It's not the first book on the banana (others include Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States by John Soluri (2006); Bananas: An American History by Virginia Scott Jenkins (2000); and Banana Wars the Price of Free Trade: A Caribbean Perspective by Gordon Myers (2004). But there may be good reason for a new one because the staple of many a fruit bowl and lunch box is threatened by extinction - and it's not the first time.
So consider the banana. For, as my dad used to say, "What's with the banana once you peel the skin off and throw away the bone ... what's left?"
Quite a bit, actually.
Maybe it started in Eden, where the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil might have been a banana. (Musa sapentium, the botanist Linnaeus named it the "wise fruit".)
Maybe it started in Africa, then moved to Southeast Asia, then on to Central and South America. (Some of those bananas you wouldn't want to meet, let alone eat.)
Today, the banana is here and we love it. More than apples and oranges (to which, yes, we can compare bananas). We love bananas!
But although the banana is for everyone, the whole book may not be. However, because it's superbly organized you can easily skip to the parts you prefer.
Starting in Eden, Koeppel devotes the first fourth of the book to the science and spread of the non-commercial banana. The middle half of the book explores the history of the fruit's transformation to what we think of today when we think of bananas. This is fascinating ripe, if you will with wars and revolutions, history and literature, business and politics, and enough colorful characters and events for a half-dozen movies. We see the birth of the United Fruit Company, now better known as Chiquita, and the rise of its major competitor, Dole. We hear of wars and rumors of war, fomented planted by the same banana companies and abetted cultivated by the U.S. government. The last quarter of the book goes toward today, where the banana is threatened by disease while growers and scientists seek a cure.
For me the slowest slog was the science, not for its poor quality but because I wanted to get to the history. A second quibble is the small chapters, some as few as three pages and none longer than 10, which present stories more like a magazine would. Indeed, the book began as magazine material: one article the author read and at least one that he wrote. Even that, though, makes the book easily digestible, although I prefer books that weave together less discernibly. Nevertheless, there's a ton of information here and Koeppel writes engagingly as the long-form journalist he is, and includes a useful timeline and index.
This review was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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