From Vaudeville Stages to Vanishing Act: The Tumultuous Tale of the Banana

In recent years, the emergence of the Fusarium oxysporum wilt “Tropic IV” variant (TR4), known as Panama disease, caused by Fusarium oxysporium, has elicited concerns regarding the potential extinction of bananas. Panama disease sprouts succumb entirely, and, most ominously, Fusarium oxysporum tenaciously persists in the soil, rendering banana cultivation unfeasible.

Bananas reign supreme

The majority of the world’s consumable bananas today are scented bud bananas, alternatively recognized as Cavendish bananas, paying homage to William Cavendish, the sixth Duke of Devonshire. This strain is a hybrid variety, with its seeds significantly degenerated, leaving behind only the succulent and tender pulp. Banana cultivators worldwide do not propagate bananas conventionally but rather utilize the subterranean rhizomes of banana trees for propagation, essentially effectuating a form of “cloning”. The consequence is the erosion of banana biodiversity, resulting in the predominance of virtually identical bananas globally, which lies at the core of the banana predicament.

Scientists have endeavored through various means to curb the spread of Panama disease from Asia to Oceania, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America over the past decade, with one of the most auspicious approaches being the hybridization of resilient bananas native to Madagascar with susceptible bananas to engender new varieties impervious to infection. However, the challenge with this method lies in the imperiled status of the wild banana in Madagascar, impeding the execution of large-scale hybridization experiments until its conservation is assured.

Historically, bananas faced extinction once before due to Panama disease. In the 1950s, an alternative banana, purportedly larger, sweeter, and more luscious than the scented bud banana, known as the Big Mac Banana, graced tables. Presently, this banana also teeters on the brink of extinction, with only a scant cultivation in Thailand remaining. To discern the distinction in taste between the Big Mac banana and the scented bud banana, one need not traverse to Thailand; a simple purchase of banana confectionery would suffice, as the flavor of contemporary banana confectionery is derived from the Big Mac banana, with its recipe dating back over six decades.

Regrettably, the delectable Big Mac banana fell prey to Panama disease initially, prompting the wholesale demise of banana plantations across Central America, compelling plantation proprietors to seek alternatives. Opting not for a variety most akin in taste to the Big Mac banana but rather selecting a visually similar banana, they wagered that consumers would gradually acclimate to the new flavor. Their gamble paid off: the sprouted banana supplanted the Big Mac banana as one of the bestselling fruits globally.

The seeds of wild bananas are conspicuously discernible, whereas those of contemporary scented bananas have undergone substantial degeneration.
How bananas assumed center stage

Indeed, bananas represent one of the earliest fruits cultivated by humanity, with their cultivation commencing around 8000 BC amongst the primitive inhabitants of Papua New Guinea. Initially featuring brown skin, diminutive, and seedy fruits with a middling texture and flavor, bananas primarily served utilitarian purposes. Through millennia of cultivation and hybridization, bananas have grown in size, diminished in seed count, and enhanced in flavor.

The Pali Tripitaka, a Buddhist scripture compiled in the 6th century B.C., makes mention of Indian traders importing bananas from Malaysia, constituting the earliest documented record of bananas. Additionally, bananas are depicted in hieroglyphic inscriptions in ancient Egypt, attesting to their consumption by Egyptian schoolchildren during school lunches. In 327 BC, Alexander the Great’s campaign in India introduced bananas to Europe upon his return.

Banana cultivation in China traces back to the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BC, though it remained confined to the southern regions for an extended period, rendering it an “exotic fruit” until the 20th century. The term “banana” in English derives from the Arabic language circa 650 AD, with Arabs referring to bananas as “banan”, signifying “finger”. Moreover, a distinct banana variety, termed “plantain” instead of “banana”, known as “plantain” in Chinese, boasts a tough peel necessitating cooking or roasting before consumption.

The bananas commonly consumed today originated in Africa approximately 1,400 years ago, resulting from the interbreeding of two wild banana species, namely, the small fruit and wild banana. Portuguese sailors in the 15th century encountered bananas in West Africa, subsequently transporting them to the Canary Islands for plantation cultivation. Contrary to popular belief, bananas did not originate in the Caribbean; they were introduced there by Spanish missionaries in 1516. Despite endeavors to cultivate bananas in what is now Florida, USA, by Spanish settlers in 1600, a frost during winter decimated all planted banana trees, leading to the cessation of further attempts and the subsequent flourishing of citrus cultivation in Florida.

Bananas made their debut in the American market at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, captivating Americans with their exquisite flavor, thus precipitating their popularity. The establishment of the Boston Fruit Company in 1885 facilitated the transportation of bananas and other fruits from the West Indies to the eastern United States, generating profits. By 1899, upon its merger into the newly formed United Fruit Company, the significance of bananas in history would be elevated.

Whether in a theatrical production or cinematic presentation, the sight of someone slipping on a banana peel invariably evokes anticipation amongst the audience. While slipping on a banana peel may seem trite, it continues to evoke laughter to this day.

The genesis of the United Fruit Company commenced with the monumental acquisition of 14 competitors, thereby monopolizing over 80 percent of banana imports into the United States and establishing numerous banana plantations in Latin America. In 1901, the company assumed control over certain governmental functions in Guatemala, setting a precedent for fruit import and export entities to exert political influence, thereby coining the term “banana republic”. By 1930, the United Fruit Company had absorbed 20 competitors and possessed 1.4 million hectares of land in Central America and the Caribbean, solidifying its status as the largest employer in the region. A corporation of such magnitude wielded considerable sway over the political and economic decisions of Latin American nations characterized by limited resources and political instability, thereby engendering a neo-colonial system fraught with discord.

Large-scale strikes amongst banana plantation laborers erupted in Colombia in 1928 and Costa Rica in 1934, both of which were quelled by the United Fruit Company. In 1951, the election of Jakovo Arbenz as president of Guatemala heralded a commitment to defending the rights of banana plantation workers, prompting him to expropriate the idle lands of the United Fruit Company and distribute them amongst landless farmers. Incensed, the United Fruit Company lobbied the U.S. government, alleging that such actions were tantamount to aligning with the Soviet Union. Consequently, the U.S. government sanctioned the CIA to orchestrate a coup d’état in Guatemala, toppling the Arbenz government and installing pro-American dictator Carlos Castillo Armas in power. Notably, the United Fruit Company played a pivotal role in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, providing substantial financial support to the “exiles” engaged in the anti-Cuban movement in the United States.

When bananas intertwine with pop culture

Setting aside the dubious association of bananas with the United Fruit Company, this tropical delight offers us not only delectable sustenance but also boundless joy. Among fruits, none holds the iconic status of the banana in popular culture; it has entrenched itself as an enduring symbol of comedy since the early 20th century, during the heyday of vaudeville.

Whether on stage or screen, the mere sight of a tossed banana peel evokes immediate anticipation from the audience. Slipping on a banana peel alone may seem the epitome of cheesy humor, yet to this day, it elicits laughter from most. Legend has it that vaudeville juggler Billy Watson drew inspiration from witnessing a passerby’s graceful, albeit unintended, ballet on a banana peel-strewn sidewalk. Watson honed his craft, mastering the art of slipping on banana peels both on and off stage, earning him the moniker “The Sliding Man”.

Indeed, shortly after bananas made their debut in the United States, littering banana peels was deemed a grave offense. In 1880, Harper’s Weekly admonished against discarding banana peels on sidewalks, lest unsuspecting pedestrians suffer grievous injuries. Teachers echoed this sentiment, instilling in children the moral imperative of disposing of banana peels responsibly. Such was the severity of the issue that the St. Louis City Council enacted legislation in 1909 prohibiting the reckless flinging of banana peels onto public thoroughfares.

As vaudeville gave way to cinema, the banana peel routine transitioned seamlessly to the silver screen, becoming a timeless comedic trope. Its cinematic debut can be traced back to the 1917 silent comedy film “Flirting”, but it was the pioneering work of silent film maestro Buster Keaton that truly elevated this routine to new heights. Keaton’s innovative use of the banana peel gag in his inaugural independent film, “The Secret Signal”, cemented its status as a classic comedic device.

Even today, many dessert establishments offer the venerable banana boat, a timeless treat conceived in 1904 by David Strickler, an apprentice pharmacist at the tender age of 23. Yes, you read that correctly – the pharmacy at the time boasted a soda fountain that dispensed both medications and indulgent frozen delights to supplement its revenue. Strickler’s creation involved slicing a banana lengthwise, adorning each half with a scoop of ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream at the center, crowned with a syrup-drenched cherry, and garnished with chopped nuts and fruit. While other desserts sold for a mere 5 cents apiece, the banana boat commanded a premium price of 10 cents due to its overwhelming demand.

However, bananas in pop culture haven’t always been met with universal acclaim. In 1926, a provocative performance by dancer Josephine Baker in Paris sparked controversy over her attire, which prominently featured a banana skirt. Baker’s risqué ensemble, consisting solely of a banana girdle and beaded necklace, stirred both admiration and consternation, particularly among conservative circles. Nonetheless, Baker ascended to stardom, forever linked with her iconic banana skirt. Over a decade later, Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda captivated audiences with her own banana-centric wardrobe, though instead of wearing a banana skirt, she dazzled crowds with a towering headdress adorned with bananas. Miranda showcased her distinctive headpiece in numerous films, including “Full House”, and crooned several banana-themed tunes. Following her untimely demise from illness in 1955, several cinematic tributes paid homage to her legacy. Even the animated feature “Despicable Me 2” features a scene wherein the Minions attempt to mimic Miranda’s iconic banana dance.

Returning to our original discourse: given that bananas have faced extinction before and may encounter a similar fate in the future, should we panic? The answer is a resounding no. History attests to humanity’s adaptability – in the 19th century, a devastating outbreak of coffee rust in Sri Lanka prompted a shift from coffee to black tea, demonstrating our capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Thus, while the fragrant bud banana has supplanted the Big Mac banana, and may one day face extinction itself, we can trust in human ingenuity to cultivate new varieties to take its place.

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