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Banana, Leatherly Berry

Did you know that the industry behind transporting bananas is the one to thank for the idea of nowadays cruise ships?.

In the years between 1902 -1935, the United Fruit enterprise, having built an empire and gained a lot of influence in most of Central America, had also acquired 95 shipping vessels to transport up to a half million each of Central American grown bananas "Gros Michel" over to the USA. They had painted their shipping vessels white, naming them the Great White Fleet. The ships were outfitted with fancy staterooms and tourist amenities as a way of making sure that boats laden with bananas would return with another type of cargo, in this case, wealthy North American citizens, as tourist, who would return home by train. The endeavor became a huge success, although it lasted short as many of the ships were commandeered into service by the U.S. Navy during the World War 1 and the World War 2. Therefore, the company is able to claim credit as an innovator of the all inclusive Caribbean cruise experience.

The banana's past is rich with historical significance. At the end of the nineteenth century, a few rugged and ruthless entrepreneurs built a market for a product most people in North America had never heard of. The fruit proved to be a commercial miracle. Within twenty years, bananas had surpassed apples to become North America's best seller, despite the fact that the banana is a tropical product that rots easily and needs to be shipped up to a thousand miles, while apples grow within a few hours of most U.S. Cities. The companies that are the direct ancestors of today's Chiquita and Dole founded by those early banana barons had to invent ways to bring bananas out of dense jungle and to control and delay ripening throughout the fruit's long distribution chain, all the way to local markets. The companies cleared rain forests, laid railroad track, and built entire cities. They invented not just radio networks but entire technologies some still in use today, to allow communication between plantations and cargo vessels approaching port. Banana fleets were the first vessels with built in refrigeration and banana companies the first to use controlled atmospheres and piped in chemicals to delay ripening. None of these innovations, now in wide use, existed before massive banana's exports; there was no such thing as a fruit industry. I have to confess that this research had me almost in tears as I read of the devastation this powerful companies caused in many Central American nations. It is amazing to consider the technological advances gained in their experience, but it came on the cost of the impoverishment of many nations. I can surely not see bananas the same way.

The banana tree is botanically the tallest herbaceous flowering plant in the world and the banana fruit is its berry. It comes from the family of plants in the genus called Musa. The fruit is variable in size, firmness and color (green, yellow, red, purple, brown). It is usually elongated and curved, with soft flesh rich in starch, potassium, vitamin B, vitamin C, fiber, and magnesium. There were once thousands of banana varieties, pink ones, fuzzy ones, even berry-flavored ones and although there still is some diversity in parts of the world, the yellow Cavendish variety has been dominating the market since the 1970s. Cavendish bananas need a little human help in order to propagate, as those tiny little black specs you see inside are technically the remnants of what would be their seeds, however they are not fertile. So, cultivation is done essentially through cloning, as the only way to reproduce them is to transplant part of the plant’s stem. This explains why a Cavendish banana in Rome will look and taste exactly the same as the banana you bought in San Diego; they are genetically identical in shape, size, and flavor.

Bananas have been cultivated and used since ancient times, even pre-dating the cultivation of rice. Wild banana plants are native to south and Southeast Asia, with evidence in Papua New Guinea dating back to 5000 BC. Traders and travelers have spread the wild bananas around the world, however they were not the sweet fruits with yellow peels we see today, but rather the red and green cooking varieties, now referred to as plantains. Yellow sweet bananas developed out of cross breeding two wild banana varieties, and were quick to be cultivated since they were so sweet in their raw form. Today, the banana is considered the fourth most valuable food crop on the planet behind wheat, rice, and milk, and is often hailed as the perfect food because it is one of the world's most accessible, nutritious, convenient, affordable crops grown year round.

In 500 BC, the first written accounts of human cultivation of bananas are created in India. The fruits are grown in the same way they are today. Since they are seedless and therefore sterile, they are propagated manually. People harvest shoots and replants them. This makes the banana a highly practical hedge against starvation, since the fruit can easily be cultivated and transported. The Hindu legend calls them "the fruit of the wise men".

In 650, Middle Eastern armies and traders bring bananas to Africa. The fruit is given the name banan, which is a variation of the Arabic word for finger. From the eastern side of the continent, it slowly migrates west, reaching Guinea. Cultivation centers around Lake Victoria, where it becomes the staple food. The banana also becomes part of a burgeoning slave trade between central and northern Africa, presaging a role it will take in the Caribbean and Central America a millennium later. Today, "the green circle" around the lake remains the place in the world where banana consumption is highest and most essential, accounting for as much as 70% of regional caloric intake.

According to an ancient story, the king of Thailand, which was formerly known as Siam, paid tribute to Vietnam with a gift of sweet bananas. From that time they were known as Chuoi Xiem or Siam banana. After the country became Thailand in 1939, they were referred to as Thai bananas or Chuoi Su. Outside of Southeast Asia, these small bananas are grown in Southern Florida, Costa Rica, Southern California, and Australia. They are not cultivated on a large-scale commercial basis and are most often found at local farmer’s markets or wet markets in Thailand and Vietnam.

In 1402, Portuguese soldiers, part of an early colonial expeditionary forces, bring the banana from Guinea to their Canary Islands colony. The island chain, today a possession of Spain, remains one of the world's key banana exporters, providing a large percentage of the fruit eaten by Europeans still today.

In 1516, Spanish missionary Father Tomás de Berlanga brings the banana to the Caribbean. The first cultivation is in Santo Domingo, now called Dominican Republic.

In 1834 in England, The Duke William Cavendish propagated banana plants on his own grow house. The yellow Cavendish variety known worldwide is named after him. This variety rose to fame by the end of the 20th century as one of the most resilient varieties after a disease wiped out its bigger and sweeter predecessor, the Gros Michel.

In 1928, the first human bred banana is grown in Trinidad. This is one of the earliest attempts to find a replacement for the Gros Michel, the classic export banana that is rapidly succumbing to the terrible Panama disease spreading worldwide causing the almost eradication of many varieties around the world.

The Cavendish still remains as the leading export banana to this day.

Another truthful fact is that bananas are a staple food for many tropical populations. Both the skin and inner part can be eaten raw or cooked. They are eaten deep fried, baked in their skin, or steamed wrapped in a banana leaf. They can also be made into fruit preserves. Another way commonly eaten is as Banana chips, a snack produced from sliced dehydrated or fried banana or plantain. Dried bananas are also ground to make banana flour.

Plantains are used in various stews and curries or cooked, baked or mashed in much the same way as potatoes.

The banana flowers are used as a vegetable in South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine, either raw or steamed with dips or cooked in soups, curries and fried foods. The flavor resembles that of artichoke. As with artichokes, both the fleshy part of the bracts and the heart are edible.

Banana leaves are large, flexible, and waterproof. They are often used as ecologically friendly disposable food containers or as "plates". In many cultures banana leaf packages containing food ingredients and spices are cooked in steam or in boiled water, or are grilled on charcoal. When used so for steaming or grilling, the banana leaves protect the food ingredients from burning and add a subtle sweet flavor. The tender core of the banana plant's trunk is also used in South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine.

Have you ever tried eating the flower of the banana?, I surely have to try that next!.

Here is a picture of my latest's purchase of organic reddish bananas from Harrow's Organic Produce. Waiting patiently for them to ripe.

What is your favorite way of eating bananas?. Tell me, let's go bananas!.

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