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Completely bananas

July 27, 2011

I had a strange experience today. I was leaving my building to grab some lunch, and saw a girl walking out of a 7-Eleven, taking a bite of a banana that she had clearly just bought at that store. What’s so strange about that? Well, for the first time, this sight struck me as completely bizarre.

I like bananas. It was a sometime breakfast for me for years. Banana bread pudding is a great way to use up the leftover crusts from the Miller family stuffing recipe at Thanksgiving. They do have all that potassium, and that 91-year-old guy who still runs every day sure swears by them. (Does anyone remember that commercial??)

But I thought about it for a second. That banana came from somewhere in Central or South America, near the equator. Ecuador is a primary exporter, or it could have come from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras. A hot, humid tropical region is what they require. That sure sounds like Chicago in this past week– but there are very few bananas commercially grown in the United States. Assuming that banana came from Ecuador, it travelled nearly 3,000 miles to get to Chicago.

THREE THOUSAND MILES. 2,900-and-some to be exact.

I was so shocked by this that I triple checked the distance.

How many different modes of transport and middle-men were involved in this international journey? More importantly, what funded this odyssey so that the banana could end up for sale in a basket on the counter of 7-Eleven for 79 cents? Cheap wages and poor conditions for the plantation workers, to start with, and then cheap energy. Lots and lots of oil.

In much older times, it used to be only nobility, kings, emperors could summon the resources to have exotic food brought in from the far reaches of the globe for an extravagant, decadent banquet that no one would forget. Now cheap energy, fossil-fueled transport, and globalization have made us all emperors. We can get bananas (in fact, much of our food) from three thousand miles away in the summer, winter, anytime we please. Until the price of oil skyrockets and the disruptive effects of climate change take off, at which point we’ll all be wearing our new clothes indeed.

Imagine all the preparation and expense that would go into you taking a 3,000-mile trip yourself. Why SHOULD we expect that we can have bananas in the Midwest, year-round? Not as a special occasion, but whenever we want?

Consider the clerk at the convenience store selling this banana, who has five degrees of separation from its origin and probably not the slightest idea of the situation in which it was grown. Versus a sunburned, smiling guy at the farmers’ market, who hands you a bag of Michigan peaches, banters mildly with you about the last thunderstorm, and either works at the orchard himself, or is personally connected to the family who grew them.

How did we come to accept and even demand such both literal and emotional distance from the origin of our food?

If you are lucky enough to have local and store-bought options to compare, it’s impossible not to see the difference. Even an organically grown apple from Whole Foods (shipped from Washington, typically) is a pale substitute for locally picked. On an apple-picking trip, that first tart crunch into an apple plucked off the branch on a sunny fall day? You could just lie down in the orchard and die of happiness.

But because bananas travel so far to get to us, they’re picked green and then “gassed” with ethylene in airtight warehouse rooms, or on the truck, to ripen them just before they reach the supermarket. So how would a fresh-picked banana compare to a store-bought, artificially ripened one that’s been traveling for three weeks? I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never had the opportunity, considering I’d have to fly to South America and find a vehicle to take me to a banana plantation in the middle of the jungle to find out. When it comes to tropical fruit, it’s a case that we just don’t know what we’re missing.

I’ll probably still make banana bread pudding, once after Thanksgiving. But right now I see no need for extra variety in the fruit options available to us. There’s more than enough diversity right here at home. At the Federal Plaza market, there’s strawberries, peaches, raspberries, blueberries, currants, even gooseberries. (Ever tried a gooseberry? They look like tiny beach balls or watermelons… and their taste is hard to describe.) Summer is the best time to reject the lure of the far-off and exotic, and enjoy what’s unusual and delicious here in the Midwest.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Fuzzy permalink
    July 30, 2011 8:45 am

    As a member of one of those countries that profits from the shipping of bananas worldwide (I have seen bananas from Costa Rica all the way in Swiss supermarkets) I must say that the days of eating internationally are counted. I dont know if I am wrong on this one but I have seen over the past 10 years a slow but gradual change to eat more local. These fruits and vegetables from exotic places are expensive so not everyone can afford them and those who can are becoming more conscious about where their food comes from, I hope that the trend continues because is right and not because is trendy.

  2. Brekke permalink
    August 25, 2011 11:22 pm

    I just saw this post. I missed it before! I have to say that Bananas kinda freak me out. The fact that all banana trees are just clones of each other because the seeds have been bred out squicks me. Like conventional turkeys. If it can’t reproduce by itself as nature intended I am NOT excited about eating it.

    That being said, if given some bananas I will turn them into banana bread, I would just never buy them for myself.

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