Nature and science writer Koeppel (To See Every Bird on Earth, 2005) chronicles the banana’s history, from early cultivation to modern popularization, and suggests ways to save it from extinction.
Expanded from an article originally published in Popular Science, the narrative covers the fruit’s biblical roots (that forbidden treat Eve plucked may not have been an apple), the history of exploitative “banana republics” and the fruit’s present precarious state. Ancient hunter-gatherers probably ate the subterranean part of the banana plant, the corm; the wild fruit, itself was inedible, with rock-hard seeds. Cultivation of mutated forms eventually yielded sweeter, bigger fruit, and the crop became a staple throughout Southeast Asia, Malaysia, southern China and the Philippines. Over thousands of years, the fruit crossed the Pacific to Africa, where the word for “food” and “banana” is the same in many regions. Once bananas arrived in the New World—via Polynesian sailors—they soon evolved from a luxury food into a necessity, as entrepreneurs figured out how to grow them in Central America and transport them by ship and rail in refrigerated containers that kept them fresh for the huge U.S. market. United Fruit (later Chiquita), founded in 1899, entered with other companies into an ever-deepening cycle of exploitation, violence and revolution in Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala. Tracing the banana’s journey, Koeppel jumps around somewhat breathlessly. He travels from the genetic labs of Leuven, Belgium, to India’s bustling markets, which sell more banana varieties than anywhere else. At his local Whole Foods in Los Angeles, he samples the exotic Caribbean-grown Lacatan variety, which he believes will take over the world. A tenacious blight called Panama Disease threatens today’s ubiquitous Cavendish banana, which gained ascendancy after the Gros Michel variety died out in the 1960s. The author crams an awful lot of information into brief chapters, but his evident interest in the subject will keep readers engaged.
A lively, well-modulated survey.