Saturday, January 10, 2009

Yes, We Will Have No Bananas

So, I hadn't heard about the coming Great Banana Crisis until I saw the article linked to below. Turns out this has been in the air for a while: Janice (who provided the title to this post) already knew about it. It's strange to read that the kind of bananas you see in every market today will be gone within a generation, and even stranger to find out that this has already happened once in my lifetime, without me ever noticing.

Basically, the story is that plantation farming of a single banana variety (the Gros Michel, or 'Big Mike') laid banana farmers vulnerable to a banana blight ('Panama Disease'), resulting in the disappearance of the most popular type of banana in the world back in the 1960s, when the Chiquita people switched over to the second-best variety, a Vietnamese banana known as the Cavendish. Apparently a Cavendish is quite different from the old Gros Michel ("smaller and less creamy"). Now today the process is repeating itself: Cavendish plantations are succumbing to the banana blight and they're working on a new "Banana 3.0": the Goldfinger. Which is resistant to Panama Disease (for now) but, unfortunately, tastes like an apple.

The thing that really gets me about this story is not the cautionary tale about how stupid it is to grow one homogeneous crop -- I can't help but think most cities in the US are ripe for a maple tree disease -- but that this is the first time I've known about what happened, even though I was around at the time. Maybe it has something to do with my having given up eating bananas around 1965 -- certainly by the time I entered first grade. But even though it's practically the only kind of fruit I dislike, I've still inadvertently eaten bits of banana from time to time since -- for example, when taking a big bite out of what I thought was coconut or lemon pie, only to discover it was (ugh) banana cream pie, or similar mishaps involving banana bread. And I never noticed that the newer banana was any different from the older ones. Unless the shift was already well underway by the mid-sixties, and my 'before' and 'after' are both of modern-day (Cavendish) bananas?

While, as someone who won't eat bananas, I'm v. much on the sidelines on this one, it's striking how similar this is to what happened with apples, which I definitely did notice at the time, though I didn't know the why of what was going on. There used to be three varieties of apples in grocery stores: Delicious (or Red Delicious), Golden Delicious, and Winesap. Sometimes there'd also be green apples, which I assume were Granny Smith, though I cdn't swear to it. But at some point the Winesaps disappeared -- I haven't seen one in years -- and Red Delicious and Golden Delicious both got bland and mealy, so that I stopped eating as much of them.

Turns out that a lot of other people did too: the apple-growers had shifted to growing apples that looked good over those that tasted good, and once folks started importing new varieties of apple from New Zealand in the nineties (Cox, Gala, Braeburn) it pretty much drove the Red Delicious growers out of business. Now not only have better, more old-fashioned Red Delicious returned but there's a huge variety in the mega-marts, including new varieties like the Jazz, Pink Lady, and Honeycrisp. These are good times for apple-lovers. Pity they're all so high-carb that I can't eat them v. often.

Tomatoes are another case where I saw what was going on -- the disappearance of locally-grown tomatoes for bland hybrids bred for shipping and appearance, not for taste. Here the tomato growers saved themselves by introducing the 'hydroponic' and 'on-the-vine' tomatoes, which at least were better than the new (low) standard fare. Even better was the recent introduction of 'heirloom' tomatoes -- all of which turn out to be funny-looking types I never heard of. The basic tomatoes of my youth are still missing, along with some more specialized older varieties like the Bradley Pink Tomato, but at least we got some good (if too-expensive) heritage tomatoes out of it.

Now I'm hoping they do the same to watermelons. The Dixie and Dixie Queen seem to have vanished, replaced by those pallid, bland, 'seedless' mini-melons that have gained so much favor in recent years. I'm hoping someone sees a market in heirloom watermelons like the Black Diamond. But I'm not holding my breath.


1 comment:

David Bratman said...

I gave up eating bananas at about the same time you did. And maybe the switch in varieties had something to do with it, though I never realized it if it did.

I attributed my acquired distaste to a childhood illness for which the treatment was a long course of "banana-flavored" medicine. Ever since, the thought of eating a banana makes me nauseous.