Going Bananas: Bee Wilson Traces the Growth Curve of the World's Favourite Fruit. (Food)

By Wilson, Bee | New Statesman (1996), February 11, 2002 | Go to article overview

Going Bananas: Bee Wilson Traces the Growth Curve of the World's Favourite Fruit. (Food)


Wilson, Bee, New Statesman (1996)


After grapes, bananas are the world's most widely consumed fruit. Indeed, considering that bananas, unlike grapes, are not used to make wine, they are, in effect, the most widely consumed fruit of all. These comical yellow fruits (or, technically, herbs) are also, surprisingly, the top-selling item in almost all British supermarkets, outselling any single brand of milk, bread or washing-up liquid. BANANAS are the seasonless fruit, the universal addition to the shopping trolley, desired by both slimmers and bodybuilders, source of potassium and vitamin C, sustainer of the toothless whether young or old, cheap enough not to hesitate over, expensive only in food miles and undervalued labour, though even some of these doubts may be allayed by "fair trade" fruit. It is almost impossible to think one's way back into a world where banana imports were rare, a world of "Yes, we have no bananas", a world of postwar scarcity in which Evelyn Waugh could torture his children by peeling exotic bananas in front of them and wolfing them down with cream and sugar without offering them so much as a taste.

The responsibility for turning bananas into a world-class commodity in the first place rests largely with a Brooklyn entrepreneur called Minor Keith, whose very name is reminiscent of the American adventurers of Conan Doyle. Minor Keith had already made some money on the railroads when, in 1899, he looked south to what would later be called the "banana republics" and founded the United Fruit Company. Very soon, United Fruit had developed a near-monopoly over world banana sales. It marketed bananas to the American public using the cartoon character Miss Chiquita Banana, a takeoff of Carmen Miranda that wore a flamboyant banana hat.

United Fruit was also responsible for promoting the idea that sliced bananas were the perfect thing to add to breakfast cereal, a stroke of genius, coinciding with the escalating consumption of boxed sugary cereals as part of the all-American breakfast. By 1955, United Fruit was one of the 100 largest US corporations. Meanwhile, back in Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador, United Fruit came to control as many as 1,000 miles of railroad, employing 60,000 workers over 1.7 million acres of land. Achieving this kind of success entailed sharp practice. As one historian observes: "Through bribery, fraud, chicanery, strong-arm tactics, extortion, tax evasion and subversion it grew to be a swaggering behemoth." United Fruit became known as "the octopus", with tentacles everywhere. In the Seventies, the bribes began to backfire, debts accumulated, and the stranglehold loosened. …

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