This week I have read a number of very disturbing articles about bananas. The banana crop is in trouble, and a National Geographic article says that it could be totally wiped out because of a disease, a fungus, that is ravaging the crops in central and northern South America. My goodness, what would the world be without banana splits, banana cream pie, banana bread and just a banana to eat out of hand? Can you imagine not having a banana to slice onto your morning cereal? I do not even want to think about it.
Problems such as this, called pandemics, are not unknown in the plant world. In the early 1900s, the world’s wine production was in jeopardy because of a virus attacking grapes. Apples, figs, peanuts and even chestnuts have faced similar issues and, fortunately, solutions were found before total disaster. Let’s hope for the best in this situation. I want to start at the beginning.
Bananas were originally “discovered” where they were probably growing for centuries, in India and other parts of Southeast Asia, some 400 years before Christ. Over the next thousand years, the plants were taken westward, eventually getting to North Africa and then into Europe, by explorers, conquerors and caravans. It certainly was a slow migration.
Bananas were introduced to the new world via the Caribbean islands by sailors and missionaries during the 1700s. Commercial growing of bananas began in the mid-1850s on land that had been used for sugar cane; there was more profit in bananas. Before the turn of the next century production was growing rapidly, and forests were cleared to make more room. The United Fruit Co. soon became a major player in the crop. United’s banana brand name is “Chiquita.” I guess that we all recognize that. The fruit began showing up in the United States just prior to the Civil War but did not become popular until about 1893, when it became a hit at the Colombian Exposition world's fair in Chicago.
During most of this time, the major variety that was grown was called Gros Michel. Then, in the early 1900s, a new disease attacked the banana plantations. Fortunately, by the 1950s, scientists developed a disease-resistant banana called the Giant Cavendish, the banana that we are now all familiar with. Now, it is under attack by a new fungus.
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While there are literally hundreds of banana varieties throughout the world, there are none, at least none have been found, that meet the idea of what we the American and European consumers want. The search is on. On the bright side, supermarkets like Wegmans right here in Auburn are offering miniature and red bananas. If you have not tried them, please do. They are a bit different, but nevertheless very tasty. I really like the red ones.
Now it is the time to write about the differences between plantains and bananas. They are both members of the musa family of plants, so both are bananas. Plantains are starchier and less sweet and have a thicker skin. They are eaten cooked rather than raw, and are a major food in parts of Africa and Latin America. And, as our Hispanic population grows, we are seeing more and more plantains in our supermarkets.
I think that it is interesting that when bananas are harvested, they are a dark green. The yellow color is the result of the ripening process that takes place during shipping. The bunches are placed in sealed containers and maintained at a specific temperature, 56 to 59 degrees, where the fruit gives off a gas, ethylene, which slowly starts the process of turning them into the sweet yellow banana that we so cherish.
Then there is the question, “Should I refrigerate my bananas?” If the banana is not yet ripe, refrigerating it will disrupt the ripening process and when brought back to room temperature, it will not ripen. If the banana is already quite ripe, you can refrigerate it for a few days to extend its useful life. Of course, the skin will darken and may even look unsightly, but the banana itself will be perfectly good.