Bananas: A Timeline

24 October 2018

A machete cuts through the stem of a 32-kilogram bunch of bananas. It falls onto the glistening shoulders of a bananero, who carries the monstrosity back to the packing plant. The still-green cluster is cut into manageable chunks, packaged and shipped globally. In wooden crates, the banana skins turn yellow. They develop brown spots. They become palatable.

 

It’s 1947 and a ship carrying over 600 Italian migrants pierces the Mediterranean Sea like a flock of birds. On this ship is a girl named Annina. She lines up at the breakfast table, sandwiched between two men who reek of sweat and pomade. The top of her head reaches just below the table-clothed edge of the trestle. Her stomach rumbles. She strains her neck to see.

For the last six breakfasts, Annina has eaten bread with jam—a meal that tastes the same everywhere in the world— but today she can’t see either ingredient. The man behind her gives her an impatient nudge and Annina reaches for a strange yellow fruit at the edge of a platter. She tears the banana away from its identical siblings and holds it limply in her hand. It’s crescent-shaped with rubbery skin, like nothing she’s ever seen before. In her impoverished village, where a single orange is a recurring Christmas gift, tropical fruits are beyond a novelty; they’re nonexistent.

It takes one bite for Annina to decide that she hates it. It’s mushy and it coats her teeth in an unsavoury fur. She puts it back on the platter and gives it a tap to signal the finality of her decision.

The man behind her tuts. He takes the banana, removes it from its skin and eats it in two bites. He scolds her: she should know better than to waste food.

 

Eight years later, on a weekend in winter, Annina picks sprouts in a field near her Ferntree Gully home. She wears unflattering waist-high rubber pants to protect her from the mud and hums an Elvis Presley song. Along the dirt road beside this field, another Italian—a boy named Antonio—walks by. He can’t help but stare at the girl in the sprout paddock, whose hair tickles her hips.

 

At the banana plantation in Ecuador, jungles of seven-metre tall banana plants sway in the breeze like faulty windmills. Sterile hybrids—mules in their own right—they’re unable to reproduce without human intervention: branch cuttings are replanted into waiting soil, becoming genetically indistinguishable from the adult trees.

These stationary giants seem to wilt in the South American sun. But they aren’t overheated—they are known to thrive in these extreme temperatures. No—the plants, albeit slowly, are starving.

Tiny unstoppable fungi spread through the soil of the banana plantation. They latch themselves onto the roots of these vulnerably identical mutants and colonise their vascular systems. Oxygen is deprived. Blood flow stops.

Cultivators, smaller than ants among the suffocating plants, attempt to prune away limp leaves. But their actions are futile; the trees are dying from the inside. All they can do at this point is watch as their prospect of profit yellows, shrivels and dies.

 

Annina marries Antonio in 1958. Their names anglicise to Anna and Tony and they begin to speak English when they go out in public. Some members of their small Italian-Australian community, pressured to assimilate, stop speaking to their children in their native tongue and Italian clubs are instead established to soften homesickness.

 

Sometime during the mid-1960s, Anna’s abhorrence turns to appreciation: bananas, she reasons, are readily available and affordable—perfect for those with no money to spare. Anna doesn’t question why they’ve also become delicious over the last decade. Bananas start to appear in cakes and on platters. Topped with cream they are popular with her two children and, when found in their lunchboxes, shield them from the humiliation of being completely foreign—the fruit’s predictability is impossible for schoolmates to mock.

Anna assumes she now has an affinity for bananas because she’s neglected childish distaste for practicality. She has no inkling that she may have a preference for one variety over another.

 

The Gros Michel—the first banana variety that Anna ever tasted—becomes an endangered species and extinct in most parts of the world. It’s replaced by the tarter, firmer Cavendish. Despite being designed with immunity to the fungus that wiped out its predecessor, the Cavendish remains plagued with one fatal flaw: a defenceless genetic identity.

 

Anna doesn’t think much differently of bananas until 2008. She is told that Tony, a lung transplant patient, should stay away from foods that could be contaminated with bacteria. The alchemist in her eyes turns potassium into gold. Anna’s love for the fruit increases tenfold because, along with their sterility and identical DNA, bananas have another defining characteristic: a thick, peelable skin that protects their soft flesh from the outside world.

They fill her handbag and her fruitbowl; “bring a banana, just in case” becomes a mantra of sorts. She forces the fruit into the hands of her grandchildren after they visit her—for the car ride home, she tells them. They make the perfect snack, breakfast and dessert.

 

But it’s 1951. Annina can’t imagine missing bananas like she will in 2010, when her husband is gone and Queensland’s plantations flood. At the moment she gives the banana a solitary tap, she believes she’ll never eat another. And in a sense, she won’t.

She watches the man behind her chew the fruit’s pale flesh until it turns into mush. When it squelches between his open lips she looks away, disgusted. She dismisses his reminder of their poverty: she’s on her way to Australia—a place her father calls The Land of Milk and Honey.

A promised land in itself.

 

Gros Michel plantations in Ecuador are thriving and Annina turns away from a novelty that she will never taste again.


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