“In the modern era, the banana — literally — has destroyed nations and ruined lives.”
I am often mocked by my traveling companions for my love of all things banana. Banana smoothies, banana pancakes, banana milk, banana yogurt, banana cake, banana bread, banana candies, and oh yes, plain old bananas. Yet before reading this book, I knew very little about my favorite snack. I’ve long believed in bananas as a cure for motion sickness (a method taught to me by sympathetic Thais on a brutal ferry crossing) and on a particularly bumpy ride through the Philippine countryside I hopped out of the jeepney and stumbled into a roadside shop in search of some. Finding nothing but crackers and cookies for sale, I desperately asked the shopgirl if she had any bananas. “Which kind?” she asked. “A yellow one!” I replied, confused and exasperated.
After reading Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, I know better.
Technically this book is stretching the “travel” category and leans more towards non-fiction, but in my defense I did buy it at Idlewild, New York City’s famous travel bookstore.
A Look Inside
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World will make you look at the world’s most familiar fruit in a completely new way. It follows the history of the banana’s spread around the globe, its rising popularity in the US, and the havoc that popularity would wreak across Central American nations and other so-called Banana Republics. This historical background is sprinkled with scenes of the present day, as unstoppable diseases tear through the world’s banana crops to the dismay of helpless farmers, scientists and researchers. It is a story of suicide and genocide, history and science, lush tropical jungles and highrise corporate boardrooms. Bananas are the most eaten, adored, and desperately needed fruit on earth. They keep hundreds of millions of people alive. They’ve also destroyed countless lives and been the axis in a seemingly endless cycle of violence, exploitation, and terror.
I found myself furiously underlining facts throughout Banana that I’m still repeating to anyone who will listen. Tell me you aren’t amazed by the following?
• Biblical scholars have recently found that in some ancient translations of the Bible, the “apple” that tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden is in fact the more appropriate and sexually suggestive banana.
• Bananas are the world’s largest fruit crop and the fourth-largest product grown overall, after wheat, rice, and corn.
• In certain parts of Africa, the word for Banana the same as the word for food.
• In India, the banana is used as a substitute for tomatoes in ketchup.
• Bananas led to the overthrow of Guatemala’s first democratically elected government in the 1950s.
• In the 1970’s, the chairman of Chiquita threw himself out of the window of his Manhattan office after the extent of his company’s political maneuverings were exposed.
• As recently as 1991, the Honduran military (with close ties to the US) killed workers who walked off the job to strike.
What I Liked
I was horrified but fascinated to read of the US banana moguls’ and the US government’s interference in the affairs of the so-called banana republics, and found this to be the book’s most interesting aspect. The true story of the Guatemala coup of 1954 in particular would make the current screenwriters for the political melodrama Scandal — in which the Vice President murders her own husband and the President steals the election — say, “Hm, okay, people aren’t going to buy this. We’ve taken it too far.” The deposed Guatemalan leader Arbenz explains his situation more eloquently than I could ever hope to: “The banana magnates… rebelled against the audacity of a Central American president who gave his fellow citizens a legal equality with [the banana magnates].” As I’m currently working my way through The Motorcycle Diaries, I also found this incidents’ overlap in the two books interesting — the Guatemalan coup is famously witnessed by Ernesto “Che” Guevera and had an enormous influence on his future radicalism.
As always, I enjoyed reading about destinations I’ve traveled to, including La Ceiba, Honduras — a city that is ground zero to the world’s banana industry (something I had a pretty amusingly naive view on back when I visited in 2010.)
I love when I read or watch something so powerful it helps me make a change in my life. I never considered buying organic bananas to be important — they’re often listed as a food that is “safe” to save money on and buy non-organic, thanks to their thick skin. Yet the author convinced me that fair trade, organic bananas are worthwhile — if not for the consumers than for the long-exploited workers getting them from plantation to kitchens.
Koeppel also makes an interesting and strong argument for genetically modified bananas, explaining his position that it is surely the only solution to the world’s current banana disease crisis. “The banana has changed the world, but for all practical purposes, it can’t change itself, and it has so far not cooperated with human efforts to make it turn a new leaf.”
What I Didn’t Like
At times, the book became a bit bogged down with details about banana genetics, the growing process, and the science behind the diseases currently destroying bananas around the world. However, science was always my worst subject and I’m undoubtedly the kind of girl to prefer reading about economics, politics and marketing instead.
While this is no fault of the author, I didn’t love that this book made me feel so guilty about consuming one of my favorite foods! Perhaps I slept my way through too many history classes, but I was blown away to learn of the devastating impact this yellow fruit has had on the lives of people all over the globe.
Who This Book is For
Banana lovers, history enthusiasts, those interested in the ethical food movement and travelers heading to countries heavily influenced by the banana (Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hawaii, Jamaica, Puerto Rico…. and on and on and on.)
Now It’s Your Turn!
Today I’m giving away a brand new hard cover copy of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World to one of you! Think of it as a virtual free bookshelf at your favorite hostel. Readers from all countries are welcome to enter.
Travel Porn is a feature in which I review books from my beloved travel literature genre. So far I’ve reviewed Bangkok Noir, a short story collection that brings the noir genre to the steamy streets of Thailand, Hotel Honolulu, a fictional account of a Waikiki hotel manager’s quirky life in a paradise lost, and Tiger Balm, the memoir of a woman traveling through Indochina in the year I was born. I’ve also featured Walking the Amazon, the true story of a man who spent 860 walking the entire length of the Amazon, Headhunters on my Doorstep, the story of a recovering alcoholic following in the footsteps of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson, and Turn Right at Machu Picchu, a tale of the “discovery” of the world’s most famous lost city. This genre, this kind of book — it’s travel porn, plain and simple.
The giveaway copy of this book has been provided to me, at my request, by the publisher. The link in these posts are Amazon Affiliate links, and I will earn a small commission from any resulting purchases.
Never knew that about bananas being used in ketchup in India! How weird! I haven’t come across it yet. Also I had no idea Motorcycle Diaries was about Che Guevara- I have never seen the trailer but heard of it. I was just in Kerala which is a communist state and they have his photos up everywhere. It’s Democratically elected… communist- wrap your head around that lol!
I absolutely loved reading it — and watching the movie! I suggest both. Hope to review them in a future post!
Unfortunately bananas are not the only commodity that has been exploited to the detriment of people living at the source. Read about the Belgian Congo at the turn of the last century when the rise of automobiles created a highly profitable and insatiable demand for rubber. Before the development of synthetic rubber, rubber trees were the source of raw material. It is a horror story.
Another book in the same genre is ‘Salt’. The demand for salt for has been with humans for centuries and has driven many historical events.
Hope I win the book
Actually the effects of rubber lust were felt in Latin America as well… I learned during my time in the Amazon that indigenous tribes there were brutally enslaved to harvest it. Horror story is right. I have heard a lot about Salt. Considering my love for the subject matter I think I might like the book!
I never cared all that much for bananas before I went to Ecuador, but spending two months there, I definitely got a newfound appreciation for this amazing fruit. That’s fun that the word for banana is the same as the word for food in some African languages. In Mandarin, the word for food is the same as rice, which is the same kind of thing going on, I guess.
Wow, that is an interesting comparison! Curious that “frijoles” and “comida” don’t sound more alike 🙂
Hmmm…sounds like the perfect gift for my wife – she suffers from “bananaphobia” (no, really!) to the point where she can’t even look at a photo of a banana without it inducing a gag reflex – not ideal for our forthcoming RTW trip!
Wow! I’ve never heard of such a thing. How does she get through the grocery store?!
I’m ashamed to say I’ve treated it as something of a joke over the years but it’s actually a recognised condition. She completely avoids the fruit aisles in the supermarket and I have to pre-warn anyone we’re visiting not to have them in a fruit bowl if it’s on show. Nightmare!
I lived for two years amid the banana fields east of La Ceiba in Honduras – Dole built probably close to half the town I lived in back during the heyday of the Banana Republic. As is often the case, most of the bananas grown there were exported so mostly we only ate “minimos”, tiny bananas that didn’t meet export standards but are still delicious!
That’s so interesting, Mary! I visited La Ceiba briefly a few years ago. Funny that living in the middle of banana land you only got the leftovers 🙂 Glad they were still so tasty!
I’ll leave a very superficial comment and just say that I love the photo of the bananas!
I expected a human rights tirade from you, but I’ll take a photo compliment 🙂
I’m definitely going to read this. Or at least add it to my dreaded in the hopes that I get there one day! It definitely sounds like my kind of book anyways
Fingers crossed for ya, Breanna! Best of luck!
I’ve always loved bananas. Together with nuts – brazil nuts with bananas, cashews with bananas…hmmmm…
I do love bananas cut up with yogurt and granola! I’ll have to add some cashews or almonds next time!
Hey Alex! You’ve inspired me to read the book! I too, suggest “Salt”, right up your alley! Being back in culinary school, this is a perfect read for me now!!!! And for dessert tonight,…Bananas Foster!
Mmm! Now you’ve made me hungry!
i have heard about this one! & while i’m not a banana fan (sorry, alex), i fully support anything that illuminates the farm to table process. much more complicated & often corrupt than a little farmer graphic on some packaging would lead us to believe! some further recommendations for anyone interested in produce backstories:
the fruit hunters (a film)
bananas! on trial for malice (also a film about the evils of Dole)
Thank you so much for those recommendations, I am going to look for them right now! However, I am always amazed how someone can not like bananas! I’m a seriously picky eater myself though so I should learn not to judge 🙂
hear me out…every day on the ride to school, my dad would noisily eat a banana at the wheel, stinking up the car with its sickly sweet smell. i…just…can’t!!
Okay, fair point 🙂
Sounds like lots of interesting facts about bananas. Now I can amaze (or bore) my kids with trivia as we go through bunches of bananas every week.
Ha, I would love to see the looks on their faces 🙂 Someday, they’ll appreciate it all!
Sounds like a fascinating read, Alex! Can you believe I hadn’t eaten a banana until I was 19 years old?! What I thought tasted terrible actually wasn’t too bad at all! hahaha
As a formerly incredibly picky eater myself, I can believe almost anything 🙂 But damn, I love bananas! I’ve probably eaten enough in my lifetime for ten people…
The height of decadence….bananas and peanut butter on toast.
I recently discovered that combo myself! It’s a winner!