Book Review: Bananas

“Yes we have no bananas,
Yes we have no bananas today.” – 1923 novelty song

Many years ago, as a teenager, I ate lunch in an Indonesian household on most Fridays. The meal always featured a huge platter of what I thought at the time were fried potatoes. They were highly spiced and slightly sweet and I adored them. But as a callow youth I didn’t think to ask anything more about them. Some 20 years later I was reading an article on plantains and realized that’s what I had been eating. I ran out to the grocery store, bought a plantain, sliced it into rounds, doused them with curry powder and a touch of sugar, and fried them. Yep, that was it.

I was reminded of my plantain experience when I first heard author Dan Koeppel interviewed on All Things Considered a couple of weeks ago. Koeppel has recently publish a book, Bananas: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.

A few days after receiving the book, I started reading it. At 1:00 the next morning I forced myself to put it down and go to sleep having read half its 260 pages at a sitting. Koeppel weaves together a story that reminds me of a basket: A strand of science appears, and then disappears behind a strand of politics. It reappears then ducks behind a strand of history. Somehow Koeppel intertwines the strands creating a consistent, comprehensive, and highly readable whole.

What initially caught my attention in the NPR interview was Koeppel’s focus on monoculture. It’s topic I addressed in “Send in the Clones” and in other columns. It comes up a lot when you talk about bananas.

Edible bananas are all seedless, so they procreate asexually. That means the banana you ate last week was probably genetically identical to the banana you ate today and, in fact, most of the bananas you’ve eaten. This is monoculture – everything is the same. And because bananas are clones of each other they’re particularly vulnerable. Worse, because domestic (as opposed to wild) bananas are uniformly seedless they’re almost impossible to crossbreed in a search for disease resistance – and there are several diseases (Panama disease and Brushy Top being the worst) currently sweeping through the banana plantations around the world. In a practical sense the fate of the world’s most popular fruit may be extinction within the next 20 or so years. Seriously.

Koeppel focuses on this possible extinction, but delves into banana republics (at one time the modern Chiquita company owned 70 percent of the arable land in Guatemala), the spread of domestic bananas from Southeast Asia throughout the world, and it’s importance as a staple food in Asia and Africa – there are people who will starve to death without bananas.

I spoke to Koeppel and he describes himself as having the broadest knowledge of bananas of anyone in the world, but is quick to assert his knowledge is “only two inches deep.” He speaks of some of the banana researchers with great respect. Since the book was released he has been inundated with emails from banana researchers picking nits with his attempt to simplify and make understandable some highly complex issues. Just as he might object to some of the simplifications I’ve made here.

Koeppel set out to write a science book and was surprised to find food people (he was recently interviewed by Lynne Rossetto Kasper on Splendid Table) drawn to his book. But in addition to foodies and science geeks, political and anthropological buffs will also appreciate this extraordinarily well-written book.