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Bananas, A Storied Fruit With An Uncertain Future

Americans consume more bananas than apples and oranges combined. Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, gives us a primer on the expansive history — and the endangered future — of the seedless, sexless fruit.

43:15

Other segments from the episode on February 18, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 18, 2008: Interview with Dan Koeppel; Review of Drew Gress' new album "Irrational numbers."

Transcript

DATE February 18, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Dan Koeppel talks about how an epidemic is threatening
the future of the banana
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The first thing that caught my attention in the new book "Banana" was the
description of the epidemic under way that could, in a matter of decades,
essentially wipe out the type of banana Americans eat. I would really miss a
banana at breakfast and I know I'm not alone. According to this new book,
Americans eat more bananas per year than apples and oranges combined. Bananas
taste sweet, but much of their history isn't. Along with innovations in
agriculture, technology, shipping and marketing, the food owes its popularity
to banana barons who controlled and, in some cases, destroyed nations. That
was the meaning of the "banana republic long before it meant a chain clothing
store.

My guest, Dan Koeppel, is the author of "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That
Changed the World." He's been published in National Geographic, Wired and
Popular Science, and has eaten bananas in five continents.

Dan Koeppel, welcome to FRESH AIR. What is killing bananas?

Mr. DAN KOEPPEL: Thank you for having me.

What's happening with bananas is that they are being struck by a fungus called
Panama disease that is incurable and that pretty much wipes out banana
plantations within a matter of years. And what's really interesting is that
the banana that's being struck was one that was believed to be, and selected
to be resistant to this fungus after the earlier banana crop, the one our
grandparents ate, was destroyed by the same fungus about 50 years ago.

GROSS: So is this a different strain of that fungus?

Mr. KOEPPEL: It is a different strain of that fungus. What happened was,
they brought some of our resistant bananas to Asia, where they hit a mutated
version of that fungus. And from there it just began galloping through that
hemisphere and has made it all the way to Australia and is almost certain to
come towards our own banana fields in Latin and South America sometime in the
next 10 years.

GROSS: But it hasn't hit there yet?

Mr. KOEPPEL: It has not hit there yet. But every single banana scientist I
spoke to--and that was quite a few--says it's not an "if," it's a "when," and
10 to 30 years. It only takes a single clump of contaminated dirt, literally,
to get this thing rampaging across entire continents.

GROSS: Are bananas particularly vulnerable to epidemics?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah, bananas are, for all their ubiquity--and it's the world's
most popular fruit by far--are very, very vulnerable to a lot of diseases.
And the reason for this is that bananas, the bananas we eat, which are called
Cavendish bananas, are fundamentally clones of each other. They are no seeds.
Every banana is grown basically by taking a cutting from one and turning it
into another tree. So every Cavendish banana that we eat, every banana you
eat, that I eat, that people eat in China and Europe, wherever, is exactly the
same genetically as every other one. And just like human identical twins,
what afflicts one afflicts the others. And these very weak bananas have a
number of diseases. Panama disease is the worst, but there's a whole bunch
others that are almost as bad that require incredible amounts of control and
chemicals and all sorts of practices just to keep that fruit coming to our
breakfast tables every day.

GROSS: So you said they require a lot of chemicals and stuff, what about the
organic bananas that you see at health food stores, natural food stores?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, yeah, organic bananas do not require a lot of chemicals,
obviously. And that's a great thing. And far be it for me to, you know, be
negative about organics, but they don't really help the problem. It's not
possible. There's not enough land to grow enough organic bananas to make them
a practical replacement for all of our supermarket bananas. That's because
organic bananas, in order to fight disease, have to be grown at higher
altitudes and cooler temperatures. That's the way it works. And there are
just not enough high altitude, cool temperature places that are also
hospitable to growing tropical bananas in order to make organic bananas a
viable, you know, total replacement for those standard 69-cent-a-pound bananas
you find in your local market.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Koeppel, author of the new book "Banana: The Fate of
the Fruit That Changed the World."

You mention that the Cavendish bananas that we all eat today in the United
States are different from the type of banana that was eaten a couple of
generations ago. What was that called, and what are the differences between
the two?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah, it's really interesting. Most people don't know this.
The original banana that was introduced to the US around 1880, 1890 and took
off, almost immediately surpassed apples as the number one favorite fruit, was
called the Gros Michel banana. And it was by almost every account a tastier,
bigger banana that had a tougher skin, and it was generally a superior food.
But the problem with the Gros Michel was that it was susceptible to this
fungus called Panama disease, which was first seen in Panama, and it was
incurable. And over the first 50 years of the last century, this disease just
rampaged and destroyed the Gros Michel.

This Cavendish banana we eat is considered an inferior banana because it
tastes more bland. It's tougher to ship. It needs to be boxed as opposed to
the Gros Michel, which could be just thrown into a boat. And it was so--our
banana was so despised by the banana companies. They were so sure it would
have--they thought it would be the New Coke of the banana world, that the
entire consumer market would reject this, what they basically considered a
lousy banana. Of course, the Gros Michel went away and we didn't have a
choice, and they didn't have a choice, and luckily for banana lovers the
transition was fairly invisible, at least on the breakfast table.

GROSS: So when did the Cavendish replace the Gros Michel?

Mr. KOEPPEL: The first real Cavendish plantations came in the '50s by--they
were introduced by Standard Fruit, which is now known as Dole. They were
Chiquita's small competitor. Chiquita refused to do this. They were
terrified, and they were literally on the verge of bankruptcy in 1960 when
they finally, at the last minute, adopted the Cavendish.

GROSS: If the Cavendish is killed off by this fungus that's rampaging around
much of the world, is there a replacement in the works?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, it's interesting, because the only banana that's exported
for any significant amount is the Cavendish, yet there are over 1,000
different kinds of bananas. The problem is that only the Cavendish is
suitable for export. In order to be exported, a banana has to have a tough
enough skin that it can stand the long trip. It has to ripen at exactly the
same rate so that when it gets to your supermarket it's going to be just green
and it's going to be nice and yellow with a couple of brown flecks in seven
days. Of all these bananas--and it has to taste right for consumer taste--and
of all these bananas that people eat all around the world, there is no
nonlocal banana other than the Cavendish to a great extent. And so there
isn't necessarily or really a Cavendish replacement. It would require a
change in the way we enjoy and think of bananas in order to get this banana
replaced. And then it would also require a lot of technology, both in terms
of science and in terms of just building structures that could bring these
more fragile, different bananas to market.

GROSS: Have you--you've tasted bananas around the world as part of your
research. How do other bananas compare in taste to what we're used to in the
United States?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, the big disadvantage of spending three years writing a
banana book is that you actually become a banana snob, and you learn to
despise or at least have contempt for the lowly poor, you know, work-a-day
Cavendish, which is a bland banana. There are some amazingly delicious
bananas out there. My favorite is called the lacatan. It's from the
Philippines. And it's the--you know, banana enthusiasts, such as they are,
many of them believe it's the best tasting banana in the world, and I would
have to agree with that. It's got a very intense, creamy flavor. They're a
red banana, and you do see some red bananas in gourmet stores here, which are
related to the lacatan. But they're quite inferior, although they're still
better than Cavendish.

GROSS: One thing you looked into was genetically modified bananas that could
withstand the fungus that is killing bananas in much of the world. So what
are some of the things you learned about what's possible through genetic
modification?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, I think the first thing to say is--to get to, is how
important bananas are. We love bananas. We eat more of them than anybody,
you know. Our corn flakes would suffer without them. But to some extent
they're a replaceable fruit for us. In other parts of the world, especially
in Africa, bananas are incredibly important. People rely on them for 80
percent of their calories. People eat 500 pounds of bananas a year, compared
to 25 pounds for us, in Uganda. So I'm saying that because genetic
modification is probably the best and fastest way to strengthen the
banana--all different kinds of bananas, not just Cavendish but these local
bananas, to strengthen them against these diseases that are running so wild
right now, and to provide, you know, the fastest way forward to protecting
these food supplies for people who really need them.

And so right now they're doing a lot of work with DNA manipulation, attempting
to cross one banana with another, sometimes trying to add attributes from
other foods. Radishes are quite resistant to a similar fungus, so there've
been attempts to add some radish genes to bananas. Nothing has so far made it
into the fields very much for testing, though.

GROSS: Genetically modified foods are very controversial. We don't know what
the long-term effects are on human bodies or on crops. But you think bananas
are in a different position than most fruits and vegetables. Why?

Mr. KOEPPEL: I do. I do. And, as I say in the book, I was the, you know,
the poster boy for thinking I want my foods pure, I don't want genetic
modification, I don't want pesticides. I still don't want pesticides, but
I've come full circle on genetic modification, especially when it comes to
bananas. I really believe that the potential dangers are minimal, if any. We
talk about crop contamination. Well, bananas don't have seeds. They don't
have pollen. They're sterile. So the idea that something could happen as has
happened with corn in a lot of the world, where corn pollen from genetically
modified corn has spread in some fields so much that you can't tell which corn
is which. That's not going to happen with bananas.

In addition, I think the need is very urgent with bananas. There's only, like
I said, there's only one kind of banana that really exists. And we have a
responsibility to strengthen it. And I really just don't think that genetic
engineering is the evil people say it is. I think that it's one of those
things that, if misused, it's definitely--can be a nasty thing. But the way
it's being done to bananas is, to me, no different than an advancement on the
conventional hybridization techniques that farmers have been using for 10,000
years.

GROSS: You just said there's only one kind of banana that exists. I assume
you meant for us in the United States there's virtually one kind of banana?

Mr. KOEPPEL: That's correct.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Koeppel. He's the author of the new book "Banana:
The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World."

You know, while we're talking about bananas and what's going on in the world
of bananas. I mean, I eat a lot of bananas and some bananas, they're just
like duds. Like, you get them home and they never turn yellow, or if they do
turn yellow it's this kind of like sickly color. And when you peel--thick
with more brownish than yellow--when you peel the--when you take off the peel
it's kind of stringy and almost wood-like and like a pulpy wood, and the
banana tastes more earthy than sweet.

Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah. On behalf of all banana lovers, I have to apologize.
You know, the problem is that, in theory all bananas--bananas are the sort of
Big Mac of natural foods. They should all be exactly the same as they are
genetically. The problem is that bananas come from so far away, and a lot of
our fruits do these days. But still, bananas have to be handled very
carefully. They're quite delicate. They're very susceptible to temperature
variations. They bruise so easily. So you're going to get a lot of different
kinds of variation in your banana. And you'll see that.

You know, people have asked me, since I've written this book, `Why do my
organic bananas ripen poorly?' And, you know, theoretically my answer has to
be `they don't.' But clearly people over and over again say that there's
something off about this banana or that one. And it really has to do with
sort of the amount of distance it travels, the amount of work that has to be
done to get this fruit here, and all the little variables that could throw up
road blocks on that long trip.

GROSS: Well, how does the distance traveled affect the taste and the
ripening?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, in order to--a banana on a tree is always green. It will
not ripen until it comes off the tree. The ripening process begins the moment
a banana is removed from the tree. That is generally about two weeks before
that banana is looking nice and yellow in your supermarket. In order to delay
and control that ripening, the bananas have to be shipped in gas-controlled
rooms where the atmosphere is controlled to limit the amount of a gas called
ethylene that fruits give off when they're ripening. It's sort of a--it's a
gas that basically says to other fruits around, `hey, everybody, let's start
ripening.' So if the ethylene is not controlled properly, you're going to get
some issues with the quality of the banana. And this refrigeration-gassing
process has to continue. Supermarket chains have huge banana ripening rooms
in their warehouses that are specifically designed to keep bananas at these
controlled temperatures and gas levels.

So if any of these little things goes wrong--if the mix is wrong, if there's
too many bananas, if they ripen too quickly--then you're going to get some
shoddy bananas. If they're handled roughly, if that carton gets dropped and
the bananas get bruised, they're going to not be as good. So there's like, as
I was saying, there's all these little variables, fine tuning, that has to be
taken care of in order to get a good banana to you.

GROSS: Now, when the former banana, the Gros Michel, and that's, by the way,
G-R-O-S M-I-C-H-E-L--it's like French for big Mike or big Michael--when that
banana basically became extinct because of a fungal epidemic and it was
replaced by the Cavendish, did the Cavendish change the way the banana
industry operated?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Absolutely. And I should add that the Gros Michel is not
extinct. It's just commercially extinct. It's still possible to grow them in
a small family plot somewhere in Central America, but practically speaking
that's very difficult also because of these diseases. But fundamentally, for
our purposes, there is no Gros Michel banana available to anyone but a local
community, and even that would be rare. But yeah, the Gros Michel was this
tough banana that--you're question about like, `oh, my banana wasn't very
good, they're inconsistent,' that was a very small problem with Gros Michel
because they're thick skinned and very hearty. They ripen at a very even,
controllable rate.

The Cavendish was considered such an inferior banana, and one of the reasons
was that it was impossible to ship. It was considered one of these bananas
that couldn't be shipped. And it took a lot of experimentation in bagging,
boxing and controlling the atmosphere to actually make this banana practical.
And the banana industry had known about the Cavendish for, since the 1920s if
not before, and had consistently rejected it, said it was impossible to get
this banana going. And the banana industry had to invent this--not just ways
to put bananas in boxes, but these assembly lines that would separate them,
that allowed, incidentally, the use of stickers on bananas because, as they
were running down this assembly line, people could put a sticker on every
other bunch. They had to come up with codes on the boxes that would tell what
plantation the banana came from, what date it was grown because of all these
variables that the inferior Cavendish required. It was a huge technological
change and, as I was saying, one that the banana industry didn't just resist
but believed was absolutely impossible until they were really forced to it,
you know, kicking and screaming.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Koeppel, author of the new book "Banana: The Fate of
the Fruit That Changed the World."

We've been talking about the taste of bananas and banana's susceptibility to
fungal epidemics. The banana also has an incredibly interesting history that
intertwines with the history of Latin America and with dictatorships in Latin
America, with American policy toward Latin America. So let's talk about that
a little bit. Was it American companies like United Fruit that actually
brought bananas to Central America?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Absolutely. There were no bananas growing anywhere in this
hemisphere until they were brought by Westerners, originally by Spanish
missionaries. But as a banana industry, there was nothing prior to that.
There were a few trees growing in Jamaica that were brought as an exotic and
overly ripe, terrible tasting treat to rich people until the 1880s.

But a few folks, you know, the banana men, decided that this was going to be a
hot product and they decided that they were going to--they immediately set out
a goal of defeating apples. They were going to sell half the price of apples
and sell twice as many bananas. It was really an amazing thing, what they
did. Apples are grown within a few miles of many, many people and they're
readily available. Bananas, they had to come up with ways to ship this
delicate, tropical fruit thousands of miles and sell it for half the price of
their local competitor. And they did it.

But to do so, they needed to keep their costs down. They needed to not just
keep their costs down, they had to have no cost. And they brutally assaulted
Latin America, Central America, North and South America. They had to enslave
nations and people. They had to control the land. They had to control the
means of production, the transportation systems. And they had to do it for
almost no money in order to reap the incredible profits that they did earn
with bananas.

GROSS: What kinds of deals did the banana men make with the Central American
governments in order to get the land they wanted and the wages that they
wanted to pay?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, there were all kinds of deals, and some of them were
forced down people's throats. The first banana growing Central American
nation was Costa Rica, and the future founder of United Fruit, which is now
known as Chiquita, started as a railroad builder. And he had contracted with
the Costa Rican government to build a railroad from the Atlantic coast to the
capital, San Jose, which is in the hills. And along the way he realized that,
instead of getting paid money--he got some of that, too--he could ask for
land. And so he was given land all alongside the railroad tracks.

And he realized that he could grow bananas on this land and he would be able
to ship the bananas back and build the railroad. And pretty soon he was
making a lot more money selling bananas than he was building the railroad.
During the process of this banana-building railroad, over 5,000 Costa Ricans
and workers died, all for the sake of this huge banana plantation. And this
fellow, whose name was Minor Keith, who became known as the uncrowned king of
Central America. But that was a deal.

You asked--some things weren't deals exactly. Samuel Zemurray, who was known
as "Sam the banana man" and who had became a CEO of Chiquita in 1929, decided
that when the Honduran government wouldn't deal with them, the easiest thing
to do would be to replace the Honduran government. So he went down to New
Orleans and picked up a couple of thugs, one was named "Machine Gun" Maloney,
got a puppet president candidate for Honduras, took a vote, and within six
weeks he'd actually overthrown the government, installed his buddy as
president, and that was the deal.

GROSS: Did the US government intervene in Latin America on behalf of the
fruit companies?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Repeatedly and terribly. The US government had everything to
do with the banana companies. They were intertwined with each other. There
were corporate relationships, boardroom relationships, family relationships.
And the United States military and United States foreign policy was working at
the beck and call of the banana companies. And over and over again you would
see the US Marines coming to help crush a banana strike or help crush a
workers' movement. Well, any workers' movement or labor action in Central
America was going to be a banana action. It was the only industry around,
really. Over and over again you would see the Marines landing. You would see
the CIA involved in creating propaganda. Any leader who was either against
the banana companies or even simply wanted a fair wage for his people would be
instantly deposed, sometimes murdered, often humiliated. And this happened
over 20 times between 1900 and 1955.

GROSS: Let me ask you to tell one of the stories of a president who was
overthrown by the United States because of the fruit companies, and that's the
story of Jacobo Arbenz, who was the president of Guatemala.

Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah. Arbenz was elected the president of Guatemala in 1954.
He was the first democratically elected president ever in Guatemala. And you
could easily say that he was the first truly democratically elected president
in the history of Central America, which had seen nothing but dictators, crazy
dictators. Arbenz's successor was called by one writer "crazier than a dozen
opium-smoking frogs." He would build temples to Minerva, and just these nutty
people who were really evil and, you know, didn't hesitate to kill or imprison
anyone who they thought got in their way. Arbenz was an antidote to this. He
promised, for the first time, that banana company land might be nationalized.

And he started by asking Chiquita to allow him to buy back land that was
fallow, land that had been fallowed by this disease, Panama disease. In other
words, land that was no longer useful to the banana companies. But even this
was such a terrible precedent, Chiquita felt, that it enlisted the help of the
United States government to overthrow Arbenz. The CIA immediately began a
propaganda campaign, broadcasting out of Miami radio reports of Arbenz's
so-called communist leanings. The US Congress was involved. And by the time
1954 had been through, a massive invasion funded by the US had been launched
from Honduras. In fact, Arbenz's forces had beaten these so-called
insurgents, but the propaganda damage was so high that Arbenz was thrown out
of the office in terror that the US would launch a full scale invasion. And
he was stripped of his clothes and led onto a plane for Mexico City where he
spent the rest of his life in exile.

Guatemala fell into a horrible state of chaos after that, and the right wing
death squads that massacred tens of thousands of Mayans in the 1980s through
that country's terrible civil war, which reverberates today, is a direct
result of that destruction and instability that the US-backed overthrow of
Arbenz began.

GROSS: It was revealed last year by the Justice Department that Chiquita
dealt with groups that Washington listed as terrorist organizations from 1994
to 2004, and it paid 1.7 million to United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
Who are they and why were they paid by Chiquita?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, Colombia is, again, one of these countries whose
fundamental instability can be traced back to banana companies in 1929 at the
behest of United Fruits. A massacre occurred of banana workers in a small
town that led to factionalizing into these various sort of terrible left and
right wing militias. We see that having led to Colombia's drug problems, to
all these armies. And the AUN is one of these armies.

And Chiquita needs to grow bananas in places, and it buys bananas from
Colombia. And in order to do so, apparently, it needed to pay what was
basically protection money. And it was protection money to a group that is
listed on the US State Department's list of terrorist groups that's known for
massacres, drug running, kidnapping. I mean, these are not kind, nice people.
They're the worst kind of people that supposedly we should not be doing
business with. Chiquita continued to pay these people off even after its own
lawyers said you really can't do this; this is illegal.'

And it was only recently that Chiquita agreed to pay this fine, admitted that
it had done so and stated that its solution now had been to remove itself from
Colombia. And if removing itself means that there are no more Chiquita
corporate executives directing working in Colombia, that Chiquita no longer
owns plantations or shipping facilities or writes paychecks to people, that is
true, it's not in Colombia. But we still see plenty of Colombian bananas here
with Chiquita stickers on them. They're bought from subcontractors.

GROSS: Do the banana companies--or maybe I should say, do the fruit companies
have as much power in Central America as they did in the banana republic era?

Mr. KOEPPEL: No, I don't think so. I mean, back in the old days Chiquita
was known as el pulpo, which is known as the Octopus, because it had its hands
in everything. And I actually, when I went to Honduras I went to a sort of
abandoned, semi-abandoned country club that had once been on the Chiquita
compound. It was still part of a more ramshackle local banana outfit. And I
sat with an old Chiquita employee, drinking a beer in this sort of run down
place, and he looked at me and said, `You know, in this room governments were
overthrown.'

And no, the banana companies are not that way anymore. But, you know--and
people can take this for whatever it's worth--I think they still behave as
aggressively as any other multinational company would with a big market to
protect and that has a lot of money to be made. And so that's why we see
Chiquita's history of bad acting continuing even if there's less of it even
today.

GROSS: My guest is Dan Koeppel and he's the author of the new book "Banana:
The Fate of the Fruit That Changed The World."

We've been talking about some of the political history of the banana, but you
also write about the cultural history of the banana, which is pretty
interesting. And like the fruit companies really went on this campaign to
make Americans aware of bananas and to tell them what could be done with
bananas. Tell us about some of these campaigns.

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, the first one to me is one of the most interesting and
funny. The banana was introduced at the 1876, actually in Philadelphia, at
the Centennial Exhibition. That's where it sort of had it's coming out party
to the masses. But this was a Victorian era, and the idea of eating a
suggestively shaped banana was considered pretty uncouth. And there have been
some other banana historians who've uncovered old recipes that show bananas
must be cut and served in foil, anything to disguise their shape. And, as you
know, you can't cut up a banana and, you know, let it sit for a few hours and
serve it.

So one of the first things the guys who founded the company that would later
become known as Chiquita did was they issued a series of postcards. And these
postcards are incredibly hilarious. They picture these very prim Victorian
women, usually four or five of them sitting in a nice dining room or under a
tree somewhere, and they're all holding half peeled bananas. And the idea
that is that it's safe to eat a banana. And this did--this worked, actually.
It really worked. And everything they did worked.

Bananas became so popular, in fact, that these companies started to suggest
recipes. It was Chiquita or United Fruit that first suggested that bananas
should go in corn flakes. And, in fact, they were the first ones to put
coupons on cereal boxes that would allow people to get their bananas and corn
flakes more cheaply. And it's also a testament to the savvy of these guys
that Chiquita got Kellogg's to pay for the coupons on their own cereal boxes.
Everything they did was designed towards making this fruit super popular. It
had to be because, as I was saying, bananas were so difficult to transport
that you had to go just go in these huge economies of scale.

GROSS: You even learned the story behind the song "Yes, We Have No Bananas."
And why don't we just play the song before we hear the story behind it.

(Soundbite of "Yes, We Have No Bananas")

There's a fruit store on our street
It's run by a Greek
And he keeps good things to eat
But you should hear him speak
When you ask him anything
Never answers no
He just yeses you to death
And as he takes your dough
He tells you

Yes, We have no bananas
We have no bananas today
We've string beans and onions
Cabbages and scallions
And all kinds of fruits and say
We have an old-a fashioned tomato
Long Island potato

But yes, we have no bananas
No bananas!
We have no bananas today
Yes, we have no...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's a recording of "Yes, We Have No Bananas" from the 1920s. Dan
Koeppel, tell us the story behind the song. Who wrote it, why did they write
it.

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, the song was written by a couple of Tin Pan Alley
songwriters, and they were in the business of making music out of just about
anything. And those days, it was sheet music and radio. And people wanted
to, you know, hear all the same goofy songs they hear now. And apparently
there was a local green grocer--this is one of the stories, and it could--I
would call it semi-apocryphal in that nobody knows who this green grocer was
or exactly what his situation was--but apparently these two songwriters would
go down and have their daily banana and they were noticing that sometimes
there weren't any. And this fellow, whose name was supposedly Jimmy, and he
was either Greek or Italian, depending on which story you like, would say in
his sort of broken English, "yes, we have no bananas." And this was possibly
and probably because bananas were beginning to get a little short sometimes.

This was at the height of the Gros Michel era, at the height of the spread of
Panama disease, and there were some difficulties in getting bananas year round
to local markets. And, you know, The New York Times actually had done some
stories at that point that had referred to some abandoned banana plantations
as leper colonies, they were so destroyed. And so there were beginning to be
some market reverberations, and there was beginning to be some desperation on
the part of the banana companies. But it was also kind of, again, one of
these odd banana parodoxes: This strange situation that nobody knew about led
to this sort of comic song that became one of the biggest hits of all time,
that was lamented as bubble gum music. And it's still, I mean, people who
aren't even around then know the song.

And one thing I should point out is that for those who say "Yes, We Have No
Bananas" is low culture. If you hum that and you hum Handel's "Hallelujah
Chorus," you will see where the tune was originated.

GROSS: Hm. One of the most famous banana advertising campaigns of all times,
perhaps the most famous, was the Chiquita banana song and the whole character
of Chiquita banana. Tell us the story behind the Chiquita banana song and
character.

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, it is interesting. And, again, it's related to this
disease. This is a commercial jingle, and the Chiquita banana character in
those early days was actually a banana who was modeled after this Brazilian
bombshell actress, Carmen Miranda, who was known not only for wearing a giant
fruit basket on her head, but in movies she had a famous dance that she kind
of wiggled amidst a group of 6'-tall dancing bananas in a very sort of
suggestive way. And she was a huge hit because she had such a huge
personality.

United Fruit, at the time, was looking for a way to identify itself, to come
up with a brand name, and one of the reasons they were looking for this was
because they were seeing shortages and they realized that they needed to try
to de-commoditize bananas. They had to get people to pick their bananas. So
they came up with this idea of Chiquita banana, and they came up with this
singing little banana and this great song, which remains, you know, again,
like "Yes, We Have No Bananas," it remains one of the most memorable little
ditties. Everybody knows the song, even though the words have changed over
the years. And, in fact, Ms. Chiquita banana stopped being a banana in the
'60s and became a real human being.

GROSS: Would you feel comfortable singing the song?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Sure, I could give it a try. Afterwards I can point out an
inaccuracy as well.

GROSS: Very good. Fact check the Chiquita banana song.

Mr. KOEPPEL: Yes, I will fact check the jingle.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. KOEPPEL: OK, here we go.

(Singing) I'm the Chiquita banana
And I've come to say
Bananas have to ripen in a certain way
When they are flecked with brown and have a golden hue,
Bananas taste the best and are the best for you

You can put them in a salad
You can put them in a pie-ay
Anyway you want to eat them
It's impossible to beat them
But bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator
So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator

GROSS: OK, fact check that song.

Mr. KOEPPEL: OK, here we go. In fact, bananas last longer when they're
refrigerated. Bananas are shipped refrigerated. And it is true that a banana
will turn brown if kept too cold, however that does not mean it will become
overripe. So what Chiquita was trying to tell you was let those bananas get
eaten as quickly as possible or let them go brown and buy some new bananas.
You do not want your banana supply lasting too long if you want to sell a lot
more bananas.

GROSS: Wow. So you're saying if you want to keep--once your banana turns
ripe and you want to preserve it a little longer, you should put it in the
refrigerator?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Right. It will look kind of brown and weak on the outside, but
I promise it will still taste OK.

GROSS: We've been talking about all aspects of the banana. Look ahead a
little bit for us. Like, you've told us that bananas are endangered, at least
the Cavendish banana that we eat in the United States is endangered because
it's being attacked in much of the world by a fungus. It hasn't attacked
Latin America yet, but experts believe it will. What other developments are
there on the banana front?

Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, there is a huge attempt to make subsistence bananas
stronger. And that's really important. And it's going in parallel with this
attempt to figure out a way to replace or strengthen the Cavendish. At the
same time, I think one thing that is really not happening and that needs to
happen is a bigger picture look at the banana monoculture. And people are
just beginning to talk about that. We only really have one banana to eat.

And it would be really difficult to find shippable, acceptable bananas that
would work in our markets, work on our tables. But the real answer to all
this is looking at other kinds of bananas. And there are countries where
there are delicious bananas that are eaten widely if only locally. Brazil has
five different bananas, and Brazil is a pretty big country, and they don't eat
many Cavendish at all. Australia also grows several kinds of bananas that are
pretty good, and they're distributed pretty widely. Of course, getting
bananas across oceans is tougher. But I really think that the future, if
there's a future for the banana, is going to be more kinds of bananas.

And the banana companies are the only ones with the money. These little
research organizations that have these incredibly important jobs of trying to
feed Africa do not have the money needed to develop a commercial banana.
That's going to come from the big banana companies. And there needs to be an
understanding and investment and appreciation that maybe people have different
kinds of tastes these days that a so-called varietal banana might be
considered a great thing and not sort of just a technical challenge that's too
difficult to actually undertake.

GROSS: Well, Dan, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. KOEPPEL: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Dan Koeppel is the author of the new book "Banana: The Fate of the
Fruit That Changed the World." I'll have to say I liked his rendition of the
Chiquita banana song. And after the interview was over, Dorothy Ferebee,
who's our administrative assistant, stopped in the studio and she told me she
remembered a different version of the song. The campaign went on for years
and there were different versions of the song. So anyways, I asked Dorothy if
she would sing it for you.

So Dorothy, you want to do it?

Ms. DOROTHY FEREBEE: (Singing) I'm the Chiquita banana
And I'm here to say,
Bananas give you energy for work and play
And the calorie count, I'm happy to say
In the medium banana's only 88

GROSS: All right. I think this is when they're in their diet conscious
campaign. Thank you for doing that.

Ms. FEREBEE: You're welcome.

GROSS: Do you remember other versions, too?

Ms. FEREBEE: No, just that one.

GROSS: I only remember like the first line of it.

Ms. FEREBEE: Well, I see Chiquita in my head, so it's all good.

GROSS: Thanks, Dorothy.

Ms. FEREBEE: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

MACHITO AND HIS AFRO-CUBAN ORCHESTRA: (Singing)
Bananas, bananas, why don't you buy
A bunch today
Bananas, bananas, you ought-a to try
A bunch today
Bananas, banana, why don't you buy
A bunch today
Bananas, bananas, you ought-a to try
A bunch today

Bananas
Bananas
Bananas
Bananas
Buy a bunch!
Today!

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That was Machito and His Afro-Cuban orchestra.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "The Irrational
Numbers" by jazz bass player Drew Gress
TERRY GROSS, host:

Jazz bass player Drew Gress has a deep tone and deep knowledge of harmony that
make him a good foil for lyrical jazz pianist Fred Hersch. But his big ears
and resourcefulness also serve him well in more open, less structured
improvised settings. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Gress' broad range of
interests and skills make his own albums particularly interesting--his brand
new one, for example.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Drew Gress getting four or five layers of line and
rhythm out of five players on his album "The Irrational Numbers." In truth,
the numbers the band plays are less irrational than unpredictable. Gress
looks for ways to sidestep jazz's usual performance format, where the band
plays the melody then a few members take solos one after another and then they
play the melody again. One way around that is to set up what some players
call duo solos, having two players improvise at the same time. For Gress it's
an update of how horns intertwine in old New Orleans jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Tim Berne on alto sax. Instead
of keeping the written and improvised parts of a tune separate, Drew Gress
might layer one over the other. He'll use written lines to underscore or
bolster a solo--in this case by pianist Craig Taborn. Gress is on bass, the
drummer is his frequent rhythm partner Tom Rainey.

(Soundbite of Jazz music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Drew Gress' quintet has toured a bunch since recording the
fine "7 Black Butterflies" in 2004. And you'd need a yard of paper to chart
all the bands who are tour more than these players have worked together.
That's one reason everyone's so in sync ideawise.

When modern jazz bands collectively improvise, there's a tendency to ramp up
the energy. But this collective can improvise quietly, too.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: As a composer, Drew Gress is interested in unifying the sound
of an album by writing themes that echo or resonate off of each other. This
tune, "Fauxjobim," in the middle of the program, makes covert reference to the
Sousa march "Stars and Stripes Forever," which is radically recast as a slow
ballad at the end of the disc.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Much as Drew Gress likes aggressive playing, he doesn't deny
his love of good melody. On his album "The Irrational Numbers," his way of
playing those tendencies off each other may be one more way he defeats
expectations. But it's not like musicians have to chose. Why not have it
all?

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed "The
Irrational Numbers" by jazz bass player Drew Gress on the Premonition label.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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