Book Review

'Banana' unpeels the history of a fruit

Outdoors and adventure writer Dan Koeppel covers every facet of the banana's significance. Outdoors and adventure writer Dan Koeppel covers every facet of the banana's significance. (helen kim)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ralph Ranalli
January 3, 2008

Thanks to Dan Koeppel, I'll never walk through the produce aisle the same way again.

Until I read his new book, "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World," I had never really wondered why there were myriad varieties of apple - Royal Gala, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Macoun, McIntosh, etc. - yet just one monolithic, curved sweet yellow fruit labeled simply "bananas." (Plantains don't count; they're green and you have to cook them before you eat them.)

The reason, it turns out, is that the banana as we know it is a worldwide poster child for bio-nondiversity. Known as the Cavendish, the bananas sold in my local supermarket in Watertown are virtual genetic duplicates of the ones sold at my sister's greengrocer in Los Angeles and at food markets in Tokyo, Paris, and Rio de Janeiro. The Cavendish is grown everywhere from Central America to New Guinea to India to the Caribbean to Southeast Asia.

In "Banana," Koeppel, a longtime outdoors and adventure writer, weaves a multifaceted story about how the fruit's unique nature has allowed it to become a worldwide food staple and a geopolitical force that has both shaped and toppled nations.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the book's multiple personalities - it is at once a political and economic treatise, a scientific explication, and a cultural history - might have proved unwieldy. Koeppel, though, weaves all of these elements together seamlessly enough that the reader really doesn't notice. While ambitious in scope (the author takes us all the way back to the Garden of Eden to argue that the forbidden fruit of Genesis was most likely a banana, not an apple), "Banana" also comes in at a manageable 304 pages.

I found much of what was within both fascinating and disturbing, particularly the sections on the practices of large US banana-importing companies during the 20th century and on how the banana's genetic uniformity makes it susceptible to plant epidemics on a worldwide scale.

Koeppel describes how, in their day, banana companies like United Fruit and Standard Fruit were as innovative, ruthless, and pervasive as any of today's big multinationals. While the banana's enduring place in American culture has much to do with the fruit's taste and nutritional qualities, it is also a testament to the banana companies' marketing genius.

The quintessential "American" breakfast of corn flakes and bananas? Invented in a United Fruit test kitchen. Bananas as the perfect baby starter food? When the banana marketers noticed that mothers were feeding mashed-up bananas to their infants, they quickly lined up scores of medical experts to validate the practice.

Less benign, though, was big fruit's behavior in Central and South America, where it employed private armies, toppled governments with CIA help, and poisoned thousands of workers with toxic pesticides. The amount of "Yanqui, go home" sentiment in that part of the world used to puzzle me. Now I wonder why there isn't more.

Also disturbing to me was Koeppel's explanation of how the Cavendish is now threatened by disease to the point of possible extinction. Sound unlikely? Well, he explains, it has happened before.

As it turns out, the Cavendish is not our grandfather's banana. That variety, called the Gros Michel ("Big Mike"), was wiped out by the same malady, Panama disease, that threatens the bananas on our own kitchen tables. Only this time there is no substitute variety, no Cavendish, waiting in the wings. It is at this point in the book that Koeppel dons an advocate's hat, pronouncing himself in favor of genetic engineering as a way to save the banana as a modern household staple.

Personally, I could have done without the cheerleading. But even for an organic-food enthusiast like me, his arguments - like the rest of the book - were compelling enough that they made me think. And that alone is worth the cover price.

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World
By Dan Koeppel
Hudson Street, 304 pp., $23.95

Ralph Ranalli is a member of the Globe staff.

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