Historian Jenkins (Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, not reviewed) serves up a helping of American history told from an unusual perspective.
The banana trade, commercial shipping, and Central American exporting have all been treated elsewhere, but here they are brought together in a single account with the goal of exploring the popular yellow fruit as a “window” into American cultural history. Probably few of us (who eat an average of 75 bananas a year) know that before the 1880s most Americans had never even seen a banana; by 1910, however, over three billion were being imported into the US annually and they are now America’s most popular fruit. The story of this transformation includes not just rough-and-tumble corporate strategy but also numerous cultural curiosities—and it is the latter that keeps it interesting. The image of the slapstick comedian slipping on a banana peel, for example, is very familiar; less well known is the fact that this image is handed down from a time when banana peels actually littered city streets so commonly as to pose a serious hazard. Urban legends of tarantulas lurking in banana bunches prove true to life, too (banana handlers wear rubber gloves to protect against the furry pests). Despite these amusing revelations, some chapters do tend to overlap, and Jenkins’s catalogue of banana information can become repetitive and trivial at times. Also, despite her hope of finding a “window” into American culture, the author’s analysis rarely penetrates much deeper than basic factual description.
Recommended reading for trivia buffs—or for anyone who has ever been assigned a paper on the subject of “food” or the “history of a product”—this is an amusing account that fails to live up to its grander ambitions.