cover image Bananas: An American History

Bananas: An American History

Virginia Scott Jenkins. Smithsonian Books, $16.95 (210pp) ISBN 978-1-56098-966-0

""A study of the banana at first may appear frivolous,"" writes Jenkins (The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession). But ""the use of everyday food can offer a window into the culture of the United States."" Drawing from an unusual assemblage of evidence, Jenkins (a scholar-in-residence at the Chesapeake Maritime Museum) argues that Americans' ideas about the fruit--how to store it, how to cook it, what it's good for--were invented, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, by advertisers and growers. And their campaigns worked like a charm: before 1880, most Americans hadn't even seen a banana; by 1910, they were consuming vast quantities of the fruit. How did this happen? Introduced to wealthy Americans in the second half of the 19th century as a delicacy, Jenkins argues, the banana was quickly seized upon by businessmen who understood that they could make a huge profit importing fruit. So they built large banana plantations in Central America and the Caribbean; soon, they had gained economic and political power in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Mexico. Protected by American troops, U.S. corporations like United Fruit helped set up puppet dictatorships in countries wherever they had plantations (hence the term ""banana republic""). Jenkins capably takes readers through this history, then describes how American businesses orchestrated popular demand for the fruit--by keeping the price low and waging a relentless advertising campaign that promoted the banana as delicious and healthful, either raw or cooked. Although the book includes a wealth of trivia on banana jokes, songs and recipes, it is really Jenkins's historical overview of the banana's production, marketing and transporting that makes this book a strong contribution to the growing field of food studies. B&w photos. (Sept.)