Virginia Scott Jenkins’ Bananas: An American History

Eric Eller penned this review.

Some years ago I found myself alone at the wedding of a distant cousin. This being one of those big, traditional Italian weddings, I was one of dozens of second, third, and fourth cousins invited so as to include the entire extended family. Not really knowing anyone well, I found myself in a conversation with a third cousin who had the odd (I thought) job of being in charge of quality control for bananas at a local supermarket chain. It had never occurred to me that bananas alone justified a quality control department, and I never thought that the care and maintenance of bananas could sustain a twenty-minute mini-lecture like the one I got before I could pull away from my cousin.

I was equally surprised that bananas could justify an entire book, but with the recent trend of books devoted to the history of individual mathematical concepts (pi, zero) or food animals (cod), histories of popular fruit couldn’t be far behind.

Virginia Scott Jenkins’s Bananas: An American History outlines the role that bananas have played in the United States since they first became popular in the 1880s. Bananas followed a complete circle in popularity — first they were a slave food, then a luxury item for the rich, and then “the poor man’s fruit.” This exhaustively researched and footnoted book explores every possible detail surrounding the transformation of bananas in American culture since the 1880s.

Jenkins gives a detailed account of the cultural and historical background to the growth of banana consumption in the US from near-total obscurity to massive popularity. One “Scientific American” article Jenkins cites shows unequivocally how ignorant Americans were of bananas in the late 19th century; the article provides instructions on how to peel a banana.

The cultural history of the banana, especially its place in American humor, is discussed and tied in to the changing relationship between the public and bananas, as the fruit transitioned from a luxury item to being predominantly seen as food for the poor. A microcosm of this change is displayed in the growth, decline, and death of the Fulton, KY (“Banana Capital of the World”) Banana Festival.

The history of bananas touted as a medical wonder fruit is relayed, with examples from the last 150 years showing that bananas have been sold as a cure or treatment for virtually every malady or problem except the common cold and male pattern baldness. Jenkins also does a good job of linking the growth and spread of banana consumption to overall trends in the United States in the first half of the 20th century — urbanization, improved city sanitation, public health, etc. This discussion is done well for the average reader unfamiliar with the politics and issues of the era. Enough detail is provided to give a good picture without bogging the reader down in minutiae or requiring detailed technical knowledge.

Bananas: An American History makes its biggest impact when describing how bananas have influenced the foreign policy of the United States and the domestic policies of Latin American nations for the past hundred years. The power of the banana industry was no more evident than in 1975, when a bribery scandal involving United Brands and the president of Honduras precipitated a military coup that removed him from office. (Jenkins doesn’t go into great detail on the many US military interventions in Central America that were precipitated by, or benefited, the banana industry, e.g., Honduras – 1903.1907, 1912, 1919, 1924, etc.; Nicaragua – 1907, 1909, etc.).

Bananas are also a large enough concern in the United States to affect the freedom of the press. In May 1998, two investigative reporters from the “Cincinnati Enquirer” published a series of articles on Chiquita Brands that led to stockholder lawsuits against the company for mismanagement and corporate malfeasance in Honduras and Colombia. Chiquita Brands was so powerful a company in Cincinnati (its corporate headquarters) that they were able to force the “Enquirer” to fire the reporters in question, issue an apology, and repudiate the articles.

Jenkins also discusses the influence of marketing on American’s banana consumption patterns. For example, even though refrigeration increases the time that bananas remain fresh (though the peel blackens), banana producers actively encouraged consumers to keep bananas out of the refrigerator, implying that it wasn’t a good thing to do. The goal was to shorten the shelf life of bananas, forcing consumers to buy more of them. Aggressive marketing to kids in the middle of the last century exactly paralleled the way that soda and sugary snacks are marketed today.

The history of bananas in the United States is more than breakfast fruit and pratfalls. Banana production has been intermixed with the politics of the United States and Central America for more than a century, and still figures prominently today in trade policy disputes with the European Union. Learning about how bananas have influenced American culture is an opportunity to learn how that culture has changed over the past century and a half.

(Smithsonian Institute Press, 2000)

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