A Microhistory

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, by Dan Koeppel, was published in 2008.

The first sentence is: “If you are an average American, about forty years old, you’re probably approaching banana ten thousand, just as I am.

BananaBanana is the non-fiction history of, and possible future of, the fruit known as the banana.

The idea for the book started with the author reading an article in Popular Science about a disease expected to kill off the most popular variety of banana, the Cavendish.

The banana is one of the most popular fruits in the world. The average person in the United States of America eats more bananas than apples and oranges combined – despite the fact that apples are a whole lot easier to transport than bananas.

A banana tree is not a tree. It’s a herb. And, despite what the book’s subtitle says, a banana is not technically a fruit. It’s a berry.

The Cavendish is “the single most popular single variety of fruit in the world“. This has not always been the case. Two generations ago, people enjoyed a variety of banana called the Gros Michael. It was what people in North America knew as a banana. The Gros Michael was wiped out by a fungus. Almost instantly, the less flavorful Cavendish began being shipped to markets.

Bananas cannot reproduce on their own. They need human intervention. Bananas are cloned. They do not evolve. Every banana, all over the world, is genetically identical to every other banana of the same variety. That’s what makes them so susceptible to a single disease.

When this book was published, researchers were still working toward modifying the Cavendish to make it more resistant to the current disease. There was no variety of banana comparable to the Cavendish.

That was a synopsis of the first 5% of Banana.

The book goes into the history of the banana, starting with Adam and Eve, and speculation about what type of fruit the forbidden fruit was. It takes us to Kuk Swamp, in New Guinea, where, it is believed, humans first farmed bananas. It follows the trade routes east from Asia to Africa to America.

Bananas remained a luxury item in the United States of America until the late 1800s.

The book goes into the science of how a plant in which both the male and female components are sterile can reproduce. (Bananas do grow in the wild, free from human intervention, but these varieties are largely inedible.)

Dan Koeppel traveled the world to write this book. He visited the university in Leuven, Belgium, the center of the world’s banana research. He went to India, which produces 20% of the world’s banana crops, but exports none of it. He went to Ecuador, the second-largest grower of banana, which exports all of its banana crops. He traveled across the continent of Africa, where many legends and traditions have been built around the banana.

Banana covers the microhistory of how United Fruit used refrigeration and worker exploitation to make its bananas the most popular fruit in the USA. It tells how slipping on a banana peel used to be such a serious health hazard that New York City created the first government recycling program, and how banana peels became a joke on Vaudeville stages. It tells how United Fruit invented ways to keep the banana popular, like mashing bananas for baby food, slicing bananas on cold cereal, and initiating school health programs that included bananas. (The banana split was not invented by United Fruit, however.)

United Fruit marketed the world’s first brand name banana, the “Chiquita” banana.

The book explains how a fungus began wiping out the Gros Michael at almost the same time as workers began striking for better working conditions in Colombia. It explains the creation of what would become known as the Banana Republic.

Banana pieces together what it can about the mysterious history of the Cavendish.

At the time of the book’s publication, there was a promising variety of banana being created, named the Goldfinger. It’s superior, in many ways, to the Cavendish. It’s major drawback is that it tastes nothing like the Cavendish.

Banana marketThe book is illustrated with photographs and drawings of various things, like a greenhouse, Adam & Eve, a banana market somewhere in Africa, and so on. I didn’t feel like these illustrations added much to the story. (I would have loved to see illustrations of the varieties of bananas mentioned.)

Banana is a work of journalism. It covers a wide variety of topics, including botany, politics, economy, business, sociology, and, of course, history. It all flows together, it’s presented well, and the book is very entertaining. (I laughed out loud at Charlie Chaplin’s instructions on how to make the old gag of slipping on a banana peel continue to be funny.)

I enjoyed this book a lot.

Why I chose this book:

I had an idea of what a “microhistory” is, but I had to find out if my idea was correct. (It was.) That lead me to a long list of books about various microhistories. Banana sounded interesting.

OK Google, Where Am I?

This morning, I decided, entirely on a whim, to take Link light rail all the way to work.

As I stood on the platform at Capitol Hill Station, reading a book on my phone, a message popped up. It was from Google. It said: “Travel time to work: 8 minutes (via southbound I-5)”. There was a little glyph of a car next to the message.

I get unsolicited weather reports from Google constantly, but that was the first time I had ever received an unsolicited traffic report.

My first thought was: How does Google know where I work?

Of course, I immediately knew the answer: I’m carrying a smartphone with a GPS receiver in my pocket.

I wasn’t at work, though. So, not only did it know where I work, it remembered.

My next thought was: If Google knows where I work, and is able to give me travel information, why doesn’t it notice that I’m inside a light rail station? Why is it giving me driving time?

Still, I was kind of impressed. Google remembered where I work, saw where I was, and decided to tell me how long it’s going to take me to drive there. It didn’t, however, remember that I have never, ever, driven to work in all the time I have owned my smartphone. (I would have been truly impressed if it had seen that I was inside Capitol Hill Station and voluntarily told me when the next train was due.)

By the way, Google: Even if I were to drive the two miles from home to work, I wouldn’t take that convoluted detour down to the freeway, only to exit a quarter-mile later, just shave a minute off my travel time.

Google entertained me while I waited for the train to arrive.