Book Review

Bananas: An American History

by Virginia Scott Jenkins

Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000. xiii + 210 pp. Index. Illustrations. $16.95 (trade paperback). ISBN 1-56098-966-1.
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Reviewed by David Karp (1/2002)

"This is a surprising book. You may come to the end of it and say to yourself, ‘But I can’t have read a whole book about oranges!’ But the chances are you will have done so..."

So runs a blurb on a paperback of John McPhee’s classic work, Oranges. Good popular books on individual fruits are rare, and it would be a pleasure to similarly endorse Virginia Scott Jenkins’ handsome, moderately priced book on the history and culture of bananas. It was clearly a labor of love; the author even named her dog Musa, after the Latin name for banana.

Reflecting the fruit’s importance in trade and political relations between the United States and Central America, at least a dozen books have addressed portions of this history, but no previous work has spanned the arc from horticulture to pop culture.

Jenkins has clearly spent much time in libraries ferreting out obscure articles on bananas. Unfortunately, her writing is pedestrian and repetitive, favoring bland clichés and passive constructions. Instead of sifting and shaping the material, she seems to have emulated the eighth-century British chronicler Nennius, who averred, "I have made a heap of all that I could find."

There are a few personal touches, as when Jenkins confesses that her husband declines to eat her preparation of "bananas spread with mustard, rolled in a ham slice secured with toothpicks, and baked in cheese sauce." A compelling story requires such colorful anecdotes, along with characters and drama, but Jenkins muffs her shots in this dry regurgitation. For instance, I would like to have read more about the 1975 defenestration of United Brands chairman Eli Black, quite a juicy scandal at the time, but the tale slips by in nine words.

Exclusive reliance on written sources limits the book’s range. The material cries out for a researcher to track down, say, a 98-year-old who worked on a banana train, or a passenger on a banana boat to Central America in the prewar glory days of the Great White Fleet. But Jenkins does not appear to have ever visited a banana plantation or even seen banana plants, which are common as weeds in Florida and Southern California yards. Nor, evidently, did she interview anyone from Chiquita and Dole, the two top bananas in today’s trade.

Jenkins seems unaware of recent authoritative reference works on bananas, and instead typically cites popular, outdated and secondhand sources. Not surprisingly, inaccuracies abound: On page 1, she cites a National Geographic article from 1951 in affirming that the banana’s Latin botanical name is Musa sapientum, meaning "fruit of the wise men." That was the term 50 years ago, but modern taxonomists identify most bananas as M. acuminata or M. balbisiana, or hybrids of the two. She footnotes a newspaper article as a source for per capita consumption of bananas, instead of getting the figures directly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

The author draws on two decade-old magazine pieces to portray Doug Richardson of Carpinteria, Calif., as currently running the nation’s only "successful commercial banana-growing business." In fact, alas, he folded operations several years ago. Jenkins pooh-poohs an 1890 book’s claim that bananas were cultivated in California, saying "there is no other evidence that they were grown in California in 1890" (p. 104). But E.J. Wickson’s 1889 first edition of California Fruits, the standard work on the subject, mentions banana-growing experiments on quite a large scale in Los Angeles County.

An editor should have remedied such inanities as many older people attribute the daily consumption of bananas to their longevity (p. 144), when the reciprocal idea is clearly intended. In sum, this book should have passed through several more stomachs before being presented for our rumination.

On the positive side, amusing black-and-white illustrations, mostly drawn from the Banana Museum in Auburn, Wash., enliven the text. The last chapter, on "The Meaning of Bananas," is the most interesting, particularly concerning early 20th century fears of slipping on banana peels. (It evoked distant memories of a schoolyard ditty: "Here comes the bride / all dressed in white / slipped on a banana peel / and went for a ride.") Far more than their occasional hazard to pedestrians would have justified, street-strewn banana peels epitomized to the bourgeoisie the anarchic, unhygienic insolence of the underclass.

The list of popular songs of bananas is fun to peruse: it includes not only the classics "Yes! We Have No Bananas" and "Mellow Yellow,' but forgotten titles such as "I Like Bananas Because They Have No Bones."

Bibliographic note from David Karp:

Of greatest interest to CRFG readers is The Complete Book of Bananas, by William O. Lessard (privately published, 1992). Bananas, 3rd ed., by R.H. Stover and N.W. Simmonds (Longmans, 1987), the classic work of botany and horticulture, includes a substantial historical chapter. Bananas and Plantains, edited by S.R. Gowen (Chapman & Hall, 1995), is the most comprehensive reference, though it’s obscenely expensive ($314.50 at Amazon.com). Bananas and Plantains, by J.C. Robinson (CAB International, 1996) covers much of the same terrain in a more affordable paperback.

Among popular works, The Total Banana, by Alex Abella (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979) includes illustrations, history, and recipes, on banana-colored paper. A shorter, more readable essay on bananas by Jenkins appears in Rooted in America: Foodlore of Popular Fruits and Vegetables, edited by David Scofield Wilson and Angus Kress Gillespie (University of Tennessee Press, 1999), pp. 23-39.


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