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This fruit plays second banana to no other one

Rochester Business Journal
August 9, 2013

Among fruits, the banana is taken for granted, yet its popularity is undeniable. Why it is so well-liked is difficult to explain, because it is essentially bland with a consistency comparable to unstirred paste of the type used to hang wallpaper. Maybe the price has something to do with it; just the other day I bought two for 21 cents.
 
Don’t misunderstand me. I like bananas at any price, but they do fluctuate wildly. One week they are 39 cents a pound and the following week the price jumps to 69 cents, an increase of more than 50 percent. Do they taste any better at the lower price? I never noticed.
 
But I have often wondered whether there is a technocrat in Honduras manipulating prices. Think about it: Doesn’t it seem strange that one week they are 49 cents at Tops and the next week 49 cents at Wegmans? Bananas are an attractive “sale” item, but just at one place at a time, or so it seems. The supermarkets appear to be taking turns using bananas as a loss leader.
 
The banana is the most popular fruit in the United States, suitable for so many uses. The best statistics I could find reported that the average American consumes more than 26 pounds of bananas a year. That is an impressive number, especially when it is extended to relate to a typical family of four. That pushes the total past 100 pounds.
 
The second most popular fruit is the apple, with average per-capita consumption just over 16 pounds. The apple is followed by the orange, but the banana’s total is greater than the total of the other two. The final number in this discussion is the total number of bananas eaten annually: 100 billion.
 
It is a uniquely designed fruit, with a sculptural curve that provides an ideal grip, enabling the consumer to tuck it comfortably in the hand. Further, it is protected with wonderful skin, which, I recently was told, some men use to polish their shoes.
 
I got the wrong impression of the versatility of the banana at an early age. I thought it was just a breakfast food, sliced and used with milk to glamorize a bowl of cornflakes. What I discovered later was that others were eating them for dessert at lunch, for an afternoon or evening snack or, on occasion, blending them with rum to make a daiquiri.
 
The basic appeal of the banana is enhanced by its changing complexion in the retail store. Some shoppers like them when there is still a touch of green at the end. Others like them when the skin is turning a blotchy brown. One prescription for a perfect marriage is having one partner like the green and the other prefer the ripened brown. I like the brown, which are sweeter.
 
I once tried to buy a brown banana in a deli and the manager insisted on giving me not one but two at no charge. If I didn’t take them they would end up in the garbage, she said. I was glad to help.
 
Apparently there are several hundred varieties of the banana grown and eaten around the world, but only two have attained significant popularity in this country, and one of those two is no longer available. That would be a species known as the Gros Michel. It was the banana of choice in the early 20th century, and there is testimony that while it looked like the bananas we see today, it was more flavorful. However, starting in the early 1900s, banana plantations came under attack by a fungus and were decimated. The steps taken to stave off the disease were unsuccessful, and by the early 1960s the Gros Michel was gone.
 
That was probably the banana my mother sliced for cereal.
 
It was replaced by the Cavendish, a variety developed in China that is the one we know today. One of its characteristics is that it supposedly is more disease-resistant than the Gros Michel. That has proved to be true, but now there are reports that a new, even more virulent fungus has been killing banana trees around the world and is expected to invade Central America in the next decade.
 
I suppose we should consider adding the plight of the Cavendish banana to the expanding list of situations we should worry about in our spare time.

Dick Hirsch is a longtime contributor to the Opinion page.

8/9/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.
 


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