Last week I listened to an episode from one of my favorite radio shows about the troubled state of the banana and its surprisingly dark history. The sadness of the story stayed with me - I found myself wanting to stay a little longer in the world of the banana rather than just moving on to the next. The next morning I made my version of the classic banana loaf using three overripe bananas that had been neglected in my fruit bowl for I'm not sure how long. As it baked in the oven, here's what I learned about the fruit we love so much, but know so little, and how its bread friend became such a lasting hit.
Our old friend Miss Chiquita, in all her cheery tropical intrigue, hides behind her colorful skirts a dark history when it comes to the yellow rinded fruit berry that's become so commonplace on the American kitchen counter. As with much of the food we consume here, the supply chain is hazy and there is a great chasm between the grower over there and the eater over here.
Together with Dole, Del Monte and Bonita, Chiquita Banana makes up 80% of banana sales in the US, and these sales are huge - bananas are the most profitable supermarket item, more so than apples and oranges combined. And when a big bunch of ripe bananas is waiting for you week after week on the shelf of your local grocery store for 58 cents a pound, any understanding of the great complexities of such a species or where it comes from is easily glossed over.
In the Southern half of the world – where bananas are grown – the banana as we know it is in grave danger. The variety of banana we eat today is called the Cavendish. There are thousands of other banana varieties, but because of its relatively superior transportability and longer shelf life, the Cavendish is the only one that’s mass produced and exported. This is an example of a monocrop, whereby acres and acres of land are artificially groomed to produce the same exact crop year after year in order to maximize efficiency and profitability.
Bananas are by no means the only example of this kind of singularly focused mass production. Monocultures are the underpinning of the modern industrial food system: wheat, corn, oats, oranges, even livestock all follow this model. Many argue that agriculture was never meant to function in such a narrowly focused state, and the result has been a system that spawns sickness, abuse and destruction.
The banana story is no different. One of the results of this lack of diversification is soil that becomes stale and resistant over time, leading to greater vulnerability to weeds, pests and pathogens. Enter the Panama Disease, a fungus that wiped out the once ubiquitous Gros Michel banana variety – which was slimmer, creamier and more flavorful than today’s banana – and which now threatens, in spite of the widespread use of pesticides, to extinguish the Cavendish we love so dearly. It was a similar monoculture disaster that caused the great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s.
The banana was handed this same fate when in the mid-20th century, the United Fruit Company saw the lucrative potential in its large-scale export. But the banana story takes an even grimmer turn when you learn about the far-reaching impact of United Fruit on the fragile economic and political development of certain Latin American countries, as well as the on the lives of banana growers around the world. Oh, and United Fruit is now called – you guessed it – Chiquita Banana.
If Miss Chiquita is the offender in the great banana crime, then banana bread is the accessory. The first banana bread recipes date back to the 1930s when handy kitchen cabinet leavening agents – baking soda and powder – were popularized in the US. Banana bread grew in popularity in the coming years, aided by what Michael Pollan calls the post-war white flour industrial complex, where, after dwindling demand during the war years, big flour companies met the postwar market with heavy marketing pushes to get America baking again.
Pillsbury initiated the great Pillsbury Bake-Off competition, Betty Crocker invented the ‘just add water and two of your own eggs’ cake mix, and Chiquita Banana, seeing an opportunity for the banana to ride the flour wake, published its first recipe book in 1949, featuring the banana bread front and center (along with some other questionable things, like the Ham Banana Roll).
And so, bananas across America were ripened to a brown rind, flour sifted to a soft grain, ovens set to 350 degrees and kitchens were flooded with steaming loaves of fresh baked banana bread, each promising to be more ‘moist’ than the next
That banana bread took hold as it did isn’t such a long shot when you think about it. Banana bread is so lovable – the homiest of comfort foods, both familiar and accessible. It’s easy to make. It’s hard to make the stuff taste bad. And bananas themselves are loved for good reason. These little packages are filled with a firm, velvety meat that’s lightly sweet with hints of pineapple and brown sugar, and a lingering vegetal flavor, almost like green bell pepper. They’re versatile for their stable structure and moisture content, used in anything from baking to smoothies to sandwiches. They even have a specific use for when they've suddenly become overripe.
But can we still eat bananas (and their bread) in good conscience? In the long term, banana companies need to promote greater genetic diversity among banana varieties. In the meantime you can look for Equal Exchange bananas at the supermarket, which ensure not only that farmers are fairly treated and compensated (fair trade), pesticides and fertilizers are controlled (organic), but also that growing practices follow the principles of “agro-forestry“, which intersperse banana crops with cacao and citrus trees, for example, (a.k.a. polyculture) to protect the natural ecosystems of the farms, thereby controlling disease and preserving the species.
In appreciation of its struggle, this recipe is here to celebrate the great banana, its journey to our hands and the growers that protect and nourish it.
Sometimes straightforward, no frills recipes are the best kind. This one has a few upgrades that lighten up the traditional blueprint. Opting for greek yogurt for extra moisture and a bit of zing, honey and brown sugar for more natural layers of sweetness, and spelt flour for it’s high-protein, low-gluten nuttiness, this recipe won’t have you feeling like you’re cooking from the Chiquita Banana Recipe Book. The quarter cup of millet brings a satisfying crunch to an otherwise homogenous texture, the flaked sea salt an unexpected hit of savoriness, and the open-faced, halved banana up top gives the old loaf a bit of a face lift that will either impress or appall anyone alive in the 1950s.
NOT-SO-CHIQUITA BANANA BREAD
1/3 cup coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup raw honey
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup full fat greek yogurt
3 medium, very ripe bananas, peeled and mashed with a fork
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup white whole wheat flour
3/4 cup spelt flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup millet
1 extra banana
flaked sea salt for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 325° F and grease a 9×5-inch loaf pan. Layer a piece of parchment paper at the bottom of the pan.
Using a whisk, beat together coconut oil, honey and brown sugar in a large bowl. Add eggs one at a time, stirring as you go until well incorporated. Stir in mashed bananas and greek yogurt, whisking until well incorporated. Stir in vanilla extract.
Mix dry ingredients, including millet, in a separate bowl. Lastly, switch to a big spoon and stir in the flour, just until combined. Stir in millet.
Pour the batter into your greased loaf pan. Sprinkle with sea salt flakes. Slice the remaining banana in half length-wise and gently place both sides open-faced on top of the loaf.
Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown on top and passes the toothpick test. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, and on a wire cooling rack for another 20 before serving.
The Splendid Table, NPR
USLeap: Bananas, International Labor Rights Forum
Cooked, Michael Pollan
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel