Serve me a buffalo burger, a grilled octopus salad, or moo shu ostrich and I will chow down heartily. Yet all my life I’ve hated bananas, in all their mushy, gooey glory.
Compared with my anti-banana extremism, what Virginia Scott Jenkins exudes seems closer to apathy; “occasionally,” she chooses to sprinkle sliced bananas on her cereal if the mood hits. As an American icon, however, the banana positively fascinates Jenkinsso much so that she recently published Bananas: An American History (Smithsonian Institution Press).
Jenkins’ first banana brainstorm came when she was reviewing American children’s literature as an intern with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She wondered why an early-20th-century Boy Scout handbook specifically mentioned “picking up banana peels off the sidewalk” as an example of a good deed that scouts should perform daily.
The explanation, as Jenkins would discover, was that bananas went from being an expensive tropical rarity to a poor man’s food with unusual rapidity, roughly in the last two decades of the 19th century. Bananas, she says, “sort of sank to the
bottom of the status chart,” and their association with the lower classes helps explain why the establishment was so vexed by peels on the street.
Jenkins found that the more she studied the funny-looking fruit, the more it intersected with major themes in American history. The rise of banana oligarch United Fruit demonstrated the exploitative relationship between the U.S. and Central America. The development of sophisticated distribution systemssteamships, railroads, and refrigerated truckstypified the revolution in transport that fed America’s consumer age. And the refinement of advertising and mass marketing was embodied by Chiquita Banana.
Bananas is Jenkins’ second monograph on the semiotics of a 20th-century American obsession, the first being The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, published in 1994, when she was teaching American studies at the University of Maryland. For the past two years, Jenkins has been a scholar-in-residence at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, preparing an exhibit on the history of the seafood industry on the Chesapeake.
Today, Jenkins says, bananas are being bred smaller (to aid portability, storage, and dieting) and are showing up in more varieties (to lure yuppie gourmands). Despite scattered challengesa banana glut, hurricane damage, pesky pests, and a trade war with the European UnionJenkins remains optimistic about the fruit’s fate. Despite it all, she reports, “bananas are still the most popular fruit per pound in America.” Louis Jacobson