Friday, March 14, 2008

The most delicious banana in the world

Bought a copy of Dave Koeppel's Bananas: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World on the strength of a recent interview he did on NPR; I don't think I'm going to regret the purchase.

The fruit is fascinating not just for its nutritional properties (it rarely if ever causes allergic reactions, is easily digestible even by babies, provides a quick burst of energy, a safe source of fiber, is rich with among others vitamins C, B6, a protein that includes three essential amino acids (combined with milk the fruit is almost a nutritionally complete diet), and potassium, a crucial element for muscular efficiency) but for the way it's cultivated (bananas sold in the United States are genetically descended from a single fruit tree variety (actually a very tall herb) called the Cavendish), distributed and marketed as America's (and the world's) most popular fruit--and the story of how it came to be that way, thanks to the efforts of Chiquita Brands International, formerly the United Fruit Company.

The company's achievements are all the more impressive considering that the banana at the turn of the century was virtually unknown to Americans, and that the most popular fruit at the time, the apple, was local produce while the banana had to be imported from South America. United Fruit's solution was to grow the fruit cheaply, so cheaply that the company has played an active role in the history of South America, and not always in a morally admirable way (basically it paid slave wages to banana growers, and kept those wages low by installing and maintaining repressive regimes).

Perhaps one of the most blatant examples of the United Fruit's machinations was the ouster of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman from Guatemala in 1954. Having ascended to power as president in one of the country's earliest democratic elections, Arbenz proposed land reform; United Fruit, the single biggest owner of unused land in Guatemala, was so unhappy it stage-managed (with the help of among others the CIA and even The New York Times) his overthrow. Under threat of invasion by the American military Arbenz resigned, and was stripped to his underwear in front of members of the press before being allowed to board a plane to Mexico.

Perhaps the most appalling single episode involving United Fruit, however indirectly, was what happened in 1929 in the town of Cienaga, in Colombia. Some months before thirty-two thousand United Fruit subcontractors (they weren't considered proper employees, to help keep wages and health benefits low) went on strike, and thanks to corporate pressure the Colombian government declared a nationwide martial law.

The very next day, a Sunday, people came out of church after hearing mass and assembled in the town square, waiting to listen to a speech from a regional politician; a general--presumably trying to prevent military intervention from the United States--ordered four machine guns positioned high around the square to fire at the men, women, and children below. Ambassador Caffery later wrote Washington that he had "the honor to report...that the total number of strikers killed by the Colombian mlitary exceeded one thousand." Nobel Prize winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez would decades later incorporate this episode (with little embellishment, far as I can see) into his best-known work, Cien anos de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967)

That was decades ago, one might say; besides, United Fruit has since lost power and morphed into the more innocuous-sounding Chiquita Brands International. True enough, only just last year the company was fined $25 million for giving over a million dollars to a Colombian terrorist group.

On the flip (and somewhat lighter) side there's a story of how United Fruit developed ways of promoting the banana, including jingles, a corporate logo based on movie star Carmen Miranda, and the idea of eating it with milk and cereal; at one point Kellogg's provided a coupon inside their cereal boxes redeemable for free bananas to be sliced into the cereal, and such was United Fruit's power that it had Kellogg's pay for the bananas.

Then there was the problem of marketing such a sexually suggestive fruit. United Fruit's solution to selling such a phallic product to squeamish women was to depict conservative young girls eating the fruit always with the skin half-peeled. With the banana constantly surrounded by a skirt of its own tough skin, it looked considerably less, well, threatening...

Perhaps one of the book's most fascinating accounts is of how the Cavendish--a by most reports bland and fragile fruit--replaced the Gros Michel as the United State's banana of choice, not because it was better (the Gros Michel (Big Mike) was sweeter, tougher) but because the Gros Michel was being wiped out by a fungus; the Panama disease, it was called, because it first started in Panama. Ironically, the same disease is striking the Cavendish now (apparently the Cavendish was immune to only one strain of the disease), and is about ready to wipe the fruit off the face of the planet.

But easily the most interesting part of the book for me was Mr. Koeppel's account of the different, delicious varietes of bananas found all over the world, and top of his list was the humble lacatan (see photo above), a Filipino banana that the writer describes as having flesh "the color of creme brulee," and a taste that is "lush and full-bodied, with an intense flavor that recalls homemade banana ice cream." Jon Verdick, who runs a San Diego nursery for exotic fruits, calls it "true nobility among bananas;" in fact, Koeppel continues, "the only problem with eating this regal banana is that afterwards you may feel--as I now do--condemned to living in a world turned drab when you bite into an ordinary Cavendish."

Flattering words to read, of course, and not a little embarrassing. Truth to tell, I've taken the banana for granted all my life. I could find the lacatan everywhere, in grocery stores, at street corner vendors, growing along the sidewalk, for God's sake! We even had a lacatan tree sprouting in our back yard--and I'm ashamed to say I've never bothered to reach up and just pick one. I've always preferred something juicier--the tart lanzones, the sweetly grainy atis, the incomparable mango (that fibrous fruit found in American grocery shelves--it's okay, but the difference is as if between night and day) among many, many others. Even among bananas, I preferred the tarter, paler-fleshed latundan, or the far smaller, extremely sweet senorita; I never considered eating the lacatan a particularly special experience.

Now I'm more than a little curious; I'd love to taste a lacatan again, if only to find out what I've so idiotically missed all my life. I keep wondering about the fruit--was its flesh really the color of creme brulee?--and when I might be able to go back and try it again. I suppose it's just one more regret meant to haunt me for the rest of my life, about the country I left behind...



fan_of_restyo said...

You write so well. Ang galing!

Quentin Tarantado said...

Don't ever get tempted to come back. I never liked this place, I don't think I ever will, given a chance to leave.
Your home is your family, wherever it is. This country can just go to the dogs.
We're science fiction fans. Our loyalty is to humanity. We're with humans, wherever we are.
Your evil twin brother.

Noel Vera said...

fan of restyo: Tenk yew!

Evil twin: I do wish I could come back for a visit, at least. I miss the people, I miss the films, I miss aside from the abovementioned fruits fresh buko (fresh young coconut), sizzling sisig (pig's head meat on a hot plate), inihaw na panga ng tuna (grilled tuna jawbone), and green mango shakes. Plus sashimi like nobody's business.

Hell, I remember Kikufuji (is it still around?) served horsemeat sashimi, with a choice of minced ginger or minced garlic for dipping.

And that's not even counting the provinces. Giant crabs with a sweet coconut sauce from Zamboanga; laing (taro leaf with coconut milk and chilis) from Bacolod; pakbet (a vegetable stew made with deep-fried pork belly, bitter melon, tomatoes, white bean, and all other kind of vegetative goodies stewed with bagoong (fermented fish) in a clay pot) from the Ilocos. Pinapaitan (goat innards stewed with gall juice) also from Ilocos. Sometimes I dream that stuff in my sleep.