Behind the Banana

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These cheery yellow peels hide a long history. (Image source: maria-brazil.org)

For one of our classes this semester, we each brought in a food that had an interesting or significant history. Looking around my kitchen 10 minutes before leaving for class, I spotted it – the banana. To me, the banana is the perfect snack or small meal – great before or after a workout, a good source of potassium, and easily transportable in its own convenient container, the peel. I feel very familiar with the banana, although I haven’t seen many banana trees in person and have never picked a banana myself. It’s a standby fruit, the supporting actor to more exotic pomegranates or pineapples, always there when you need it.

But for such an ordinary and ubiquitous fruit that populates the majority of grocery stores throughout the United States, the banana is not local! Perhaps it has been localized in the sense that we are used to constantly having easy access to it, but the banana was originally domesticated in Papua New Guinea. The success of the fruit, discovered by colonizers and widely exported, contributed to the growth of Central American “banana republics” and was responsible for the exploitation of thousands of banana harvesters. Despite its sunny disposition at your local Market Basket or Trader Joe’s, the banana has a long and contentious history.

What if, instead of being a vegetarian or a vegan, you were a locavore? Depending on your definition of “local”, you only purchased and consumed produce and animal products grown and processed within your state or region. Living in, say, Boston, bananas would be out of the question. Instead of a daily snack, they would be a rare treat enjoyed only on vacation in Central American or South Asian countries. Thinking about the history of the banana, as well as the chains of production and supply that bring copious quantities of the fruit to the United States, gave me pause. The networks that transport bananas internationally and ship them across the country do not seem incredibly sustainable, and they certainly contribute to the excess and waste present in our current food system.

Knowing this, I still can’t bring myself to give up bananas. They’re just so practical. But the stories behind our food and how we get it are worth learning, especially when they involve a colonial past. Even if they don’t cause us to change our diets, we are more aware and informed buyers because of them. (Check out this NPR story for an interesting narrative about the banana’s “sexy, sordid history.”)

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