February 16th, 2009
A peanut butter sandwich, a banana and a glass of soy milk.
It may not be as poetic as, “a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou”, but it works pretty well for me.
I am a creature of habit. I need nourishment soon after I rise in the morning and I usually have the sandwich, fruit and beverage that I mentioned above. Lately however I have been concerned about reports that the banana, as we know it, may become unavailable in the next ten to twenty years.
Bananas were practically unknown in America before 1870. The only real fresh fruits available in our produce stores during the winter months were from the citrus family. Two different individuals discovered the year round marketability of bananas at nearly the same time and by 1899 the various operations had merged to form the United Fruit Company. Because the fruit was available year round and could be picked green and allowed to ripen either naturally or in gas chambers it was easy to promote and deliver on a regular basis.
There are hundreds of varieties of bananas from all over the world. Some have large seeds and they vary in color, size, sweetness and texture. Most of our bananas come from the Caribbean and the variety we see in abundance in our grocery stores is the Cavendish. But that was not the variety that was marketed originally by the United Fruit Company. The first popular variety was the Gros Michel. It sounds like such a royal name that I cannot help but wonder how it tasted. I will probably never have the opportunity to find out. By the 1950s the Gros Michel was dying in large numbers due to Panama disease. It soon became unprofitable to produce and market it so the company replaced it with the Cavendish. The problem that some scientists are predicting is that this variety is doomed to a similar fate in the foreseeable future. What will replace our precious banana? Who knows? I hope it doesn’t have large seeds because as the Hoosier Hot Shots put it so musically, I Like Banana Because They Have No Bones.
The banana is such a large part of our food culture here in the United States that we take it for granted.
One of my favorite character actors is the late Andy Devine. If you are a fan of old Westerns you will undoubtedly remember him as “Cookie”, the side kick of Roy Rogers. He had a high pitched whining kind of a voice that contrasted well with his rather large frame. I like to think of him as being “traditionally built” but then I also like to think of myself as being the same size that I was in High School. I like to think lots of things. I digress.
Mr. Devine had a long and wonderful career and appeared in well over a hundred movies and many TV shows. He was in the classic western, Stagecoach as well as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Word and Myra Breckenridge. His television appearances include everything from Bonanza, Twilight Zone and Batman to a regular character in the first year of the show Flipper.
He characters were often humorous but he did dramatic roles as well. Probably the role he is remembered for most in our house is the voice of Friar Tuck in the Disney animated film Robin Hood.
Frank Zappa wrote a song called Andy that is a reference to him and contains some very strange lyrics but that is nothing unusual for Mr. Zappa.
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were watching a movie I borrowed from the library called Torrid Zone.
When I was kid and we only had two or if we were lucky three stations we could watch on our television, the networks used to have regular hours set aside for old movies. I guess they had a harder time filling time slots so whenever they were at a loss as to what to use to fill a couple of hours they would show some old movie. I remember in particular an afternoon slot at around 4:00 PM when either NBC or CBS would show an afternoon movie. Most of the time I was outside riding my bike or playing baseball or fishing, but occasionally the weather would be bad or I would just be bored so I would plop down in front of the old black and white set and watch whatever movies they had on.
While watching the Torrid Zone the other night I remembered seeing it as a child on one of those quiet afternoons I spent in front of the set.
Torrid Zone is from 1940 and it stars Pat O’Brien, James Cagney and Ann Sheridan. The action takes place on a banana plantation somewhere in the Caribbean. Pat O’Brien is the manager and James Cagney plays an overseer who works off and on for O’Brien. Cagney is one of the few people capable of getting the bananas to the shipping port on a regular basis. Ann Sheridan is a singer/card shark who is passing through the local port.
Pat ‘Obrien basically runs the whole town. The local police do everything he says and he wants Ann Sheridan out of the way and on down the road. He cannot tolerate anything the does not help get his precious fruit shipped.
The actual history of the United Fruit Company was quite close to this in the way they operated in Guatemala, Costa Rica and other banana producing countries. They were such a large part of the economy of these small underdeveloped nations that the company itself was pretty much the law and what was good for the company was what was good for the country. If you have ever heard of the term “Banana Republic” this is where it comes from.
In the movie a local peasant hero is captured and sentenced to die by a firing squad. He meets Ann Sheridan in jail and as he is leaving to go to his execution he gives her a ring he is wearing.
The particular piece of dialogue that I remembered from my childhood is when he tells her that he won’t need the ring where he is going. Her reply is classic.
“What, are you afraid it will melt”?
The whole movie is full of snappy one-liners like that and I found it a joy to watch.
And to make it even better, Andy Devine plays James Cagney’s helper. His whiney voice and comical expressions fit right in with the quick repartee of the other stars. The movie is a great example of fast pace modern humor and a great example of just how much control this American business had over the politics of these small countries. Gee, I wonder? Do you suppose American businesses have any control over foreign economies and politics anymore? I guess I’ll just let that one lie there.
Another nod to the notion of a “Banana Republic” can be seen in Woody Allen’s great early film, appropriately entitled Bananas. Woody, of course, takes the whole concept way over the top in a slapstick manner, but it still works very well.
While writing this I dug around into some of the many books I own on food and cooking and came up with a gem of a book called The Banana by Philip Keep Reynolds. It was printed in 1927 and has a tipped in sheet in the front of it that indicates it was a gift to someone from the Fruit Dispatch Company. The book is full of black and white photographs, maps and illustrations and it chronicles the early history of banana production and marketing in and around the United States and the Caribbean. Of course this is about the Gros Michel variety not the Cavendish. At this point the Gros Michel was not dying from Panama disease.
I’m sure that the reason I like peanut butter and bananas so much is because we always had them in the house when I was a kid. Whenever we were hungry and there wasn’t anything else to devour my Mom would say, “Go make a peanut butter sandwich”.
Now we are faced with the demise of the banana as we know it and added to that is the new threat of salmonella in our peanut butter. I’m sure you are all aware of the massive recall of certain peanut butter products. My wife told me the other day that I should stop eating peanut butter sandwiches to be on the safe side. I don’t know that I need to be that concerned but who knows? If you don’t see a post from me after this, I guess you might consider that I ate one too many PB sandwiches.
It was great watching that old movie and making that connection with my childhood. Peanut butter and bananas may end up going the way of the late great Andy Devine. Just like many people, I try to hold on to the past but change is inevitable. What I think is important is not the things we had or the things we try to hold onto. The real value is in the memories. No one can take those from us.