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Bananas

Bananas

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Published by gezelliggirl

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Published by: gezelliggirl on Dec 09, 2010
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03/14/2011

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America’s Journey to Banana Land 
Wal-Mart sells one particular item more than any other, and it’s probably not what you mightthink. The number-one selling item at the world’s largest retailer isn’t toilet paper or DVDs or socks.It’s
bananas
. Wal-Mart sells more bananas than anything else.
1
 Americans eat a whopping 26 pounds of bananas on average per year, more than apples andoranges combined.
2
But unlike apples and oranges, hardly any bananas are grown within the UnitedStates. Bananas didn’t arrive here in any appreciable amount until after the Civil War.How did the bananas, as a tropical newcomer, become America’s favorite? And will it always bethat way?America’s love for bananas can be traced back to 1870, to sea captain Lorenzo Dow Baker andhis fishing schooner, the
Telegraph
. Returning home after bringing gold prospectors to Venezuela’sOrinoco river, the
Telegraph
began taking on water. While stopped for repairs in Jamaica, Baker decidedto take on bananas as cargo, hoping the sale would help him recoup the cost of his repairs. Figuring hecould easily make the mainland in two weeks at most, Baker could only hope the bananas would still besellable when he reached home.Ideally, bananas need tropical or subtropical climates. To bear fruit, they require 14 to 23consecutive months of sunny, frost-free weather, coupled with abundant rain. Nearly all of the UnitedStates, with some exceptions around the Gulf of Mexico, is unsuitable for growing bananas. WhileSpanish settlers brought banana plants to southern Florida, periodic frosts kept the plants from bearingfruit more than once every four or five years. And Florida bananas, when they did grow, were describedin a 1913 publication as being “generally inferior in quality, as compared with tropical fruit.”
3
 Bananas from the subtropical Caribbean had been sporadically available in port cities likePhiladelphia, New York, and Boston for more than 60 years by the time Baker was waiting for his shipto be repaired in 1870 Jamaica. He knew transporting bananas was always a challenge. Any delay inshipping—fierce winds or calm seas—often meant bananas arrived at port far too ripe to sell.Baker set sail from Jamaica when he felt conditions were ideal, and arrived in Jersey City just11 days later. He sold 160 bunches of bananas for two dollars each—the equivalent of nearly $48 abunch today—which was more than enough to pay for the repairs to his ship. Encouraged by this initialsuccess, within a year, Lorenzo Dow Baker was the biggest banana exporter in the Caribbean. The fruit
1
"The Popularity Issue: Item at Walmart: Banana - BusinessWeek." BusinessWeek Slide Shows and Multimedia.
2
"The 2010 Statistical Abstract: Food Consumption and Nutrition." Census Bureau Home Page.
3
William Fawcett and Daniel Morris.
The Banana: Its Cultivation, Distribution and Commercial Uses
. (London: Duckworth,1921) 169.
 
he imported, exotic and expensive, quickly became the height of culinary fashion at upper-class dinnerparties (although the banana was never to be picked up and eaten out of hand; the etiquette of thetime demanded that, while at the dinner table, the suggestively-shaped banana was strictly to be eatenwith a fruit knife and fork, particularly when eaten by women)
4
. As bananas became the fashionable fruit, Andrew Preston, a 25-year-old produce buyer inBoston, found he could hardly keep them in stock. “I saw ’em, I bought ’em and I sold ’em,”
5
he laterrecalled of first buying some of Baker’s banana cargo. He quickly realized the potential of this new fruitin the United States and in 1885, Preston and Lorenzo Dow Baker founded the world’s first commercialbanana company: Boston Fruit. It would later be known as The United Fruit Company, a name thatwould become synonymous with controlling third-world governments for their own profit—the so-called“banana republics.” Most of us know United Fruit today as Chiquita.After telling his business partners that he wanted bananas to be “more popular than apples,”
6 
Preston employed some radical new means to make them so. First, his company abandoned sailing shipsin favor of new steamships—transit time from the Caribbean to eastern ports now took less than fivedays—but entire boatloads of bananas still sometimes spoiled before it could be sold.Preston then took the next big step: refrigerated shipping, using thousands of blocks of ice tokeep bananas from ripening too fast. Building on this idea, cold-storage warehouses were then builtthroughout the United States, creating a network of shipping facilities, connected by railway hubs,allowing bananas to be sold further and further inland from coastal ports.Ice became so essential to the banana industry, a rival banana importer bought up every icefactory along the Gulf Coast. After cutting out the middleman for his ice supply, Joseph Vaccaro, andhis company, Standard Fruit, became the second big success in the banana importing business. Nowknown as Dole Fruit, it is still Chiquita’s biggest competitor for banana sales.
7
 As banana companies like Standard Fruit and United Fruit grew, the price of bananas swiftlybegan to drop, as they bought up more and more land in the Caribbean and then Central America. In
Banana: the Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World 
, Dan Koeppel describes the success of the earlybananas distribution as something that “should have been impossible.”
8
They brought consumers a highly perishable tropical product, intact and ready to eat,thousands of miles from the place where it grew, at a price everyone could afford.They did it by developing a formula banana conglomerates still employ today: Workon a large scale, control transportation and distribution, and aggressively dominate
4
Virginia Scott Jenkins.
 Bananas: an American History
. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2000) 103.
5
Dan Koeppel.
 Banana: the Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World 
. (New York: Hudson Street, 2008) 55.
6
Koeppel 55.
7
“Banana.” United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
8
Koeppel 56
 
land and labor. The result? The bananas cost half as much as apples, and Americanscouldn’t get enough of the new fruit.Bananas, now available to everyone at low prices, quickly lost their elite status and disappearedfrom the tables of the wealthy, but their popularity among the growing middle class exploded. Unlikemany fruits of the time, they were uniformly sweet and available year-round. But perhaps moreimportantly, they were (and still are) cheap and healthy. In just the first ten years of the 20th century,consumption of bananas tripled—from around 15 million bunchesannually to over 40 million.Still, United Fruit wanted bananas to be more than justthe occasional snack. When, in 1929, a consumer survey foundhouseholds with children bought more bananas than thosewithout, they began a marketing campaign aimed at families thatwould last for decades.When researchers found mothers sometimes fed mashedbanana to babies as one their first solid foods, United Fruit bothhired doctors to endorse the idea and launched an advertisingcampaign encouraging more mothers to do the same, ensuringchildren grew up eating bananas from the very start.Not content with marketing only to children indirectly, United Fruit established an “EducationDepartment” (reportedly separate from their advertising department) that created teacher’s guides on thefood value of bananas, lesson sheets, filmstrips, classroom posters extolling bananas—even a full-color20-minute educational film, called “Journey to Banana Land” showing bananas traveling from charminglyrustic fields to modern supermarkets, while also extolling the virtues of United Fruit, bringing “20th-century living”
9
to Central America.Still, the biggest change to the banana was yet to come, and this time, it wasn’t a changeimplemented by United Fruit. It would come from a fungus:
Fusarium oxysporum,
better known asPanama disease.The bananas we eat, as you’ve probably noticed, are seedless. (The black specks at the centerof a banana are its vestigial seeds; any viability was bred out millennia ago.) Every banana plant is anoffshoot of a rhizome, much like a potato when the “eyes” sprout. Each offshoot from the originalrhizome will become its own plant. While they may differ slightly in appearance or even in taste, because
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 Journey to Banana Land 
. United Fruit Co., 1950. Film.

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