Going Bananas

North America's most popular fruit has a fascinating history and delicious appeal.



Photo by Laura Petrilla

A ripe yellow banana is the perfect on-the-go snack and a pleasure that’s cheap and universal. From the fanciest grocery to the lowliest corner store, no fruit is more ubiquitous—worldwide, people eat nearly 30 pounds of bananas each per year. Back in the 19th century, however, the fruit was virtually unknown; a major attraction at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 was the chance to see a real banana plant and to buy foil-wrapped bananas as an exotic snack.

Banana plants resemble trees, but are actually towering herbs of 15 to 30 feet high in the same family as lilies and orchids. They originated in India and spread via Arab traders to the east coast of Africa, eventually arriving in the Caribbean and the Americas via Portuguese and Spanish explorers.

The first banana plantation in the United States was established in Florida in 1876, but it failed because the climate wasn’t warm enough. Instead, production exploded in the Caribbean, and the Boston-based United Fruit Co.—which later earned a reputation as one of history’s most corrupt and controlling influences in the banana-growing countries of Central America—became hugely successful. By the early 1900s, the company was selling the fruit cheaply and marketing it as ideal baby food (commercial jarred baby food wasn’t introduced until the 1930s) and as an essential for breakfast, leading to the cereal-and-banana combo we now think of as classic.

The early 1900s brought the invention of the banana split, which some claim was invented at Tassel Pharmacy’s soda counter in Latrobe. In the 1940s, Chiquita created an enduring female figure named Chiquita Banana based on a role played by Brazilian actress Carmen Miranda in the movie The Gang’s All Here, in which she wore a hat of cascading bananas. The accompanying ad jingle topped the charts and, perhaps because the company distributed the sheet music to public schools everywhere, remains popular even today.

The familiar old joke about slipping on banana peels may very well stem from the fact that, by 1910, the fruit was so popular that peels on the sidewalks became a public nuisance. Lawsuits brought against railroad companies by passengers who claimed injury after slipping on banana peels actually succeeded. A Boy Scout Handbook from the early 1900s gave instructions for, of course, helping old ladies across the street, but also for picking up banana peels from the sidewalk to prevent accidents.

These days, we seem to have mastered putting our peels into the trash, but the way we eat bananas—on cereal in the morning, as a midday snack or in simple baked treats—remains much the same as it has for nearly a century.

WILD BUNCH

Bananas are the most popular fruit in the American produce market, and only one type is widely sold—long and tapered in shape, with yellow skin and soft, sweet fruit.
 

In other parts of the world, however, bananas of different sizes and colors abound. At Latin markets and specialty produce stores, you might find the Manzano, also known as the apple banana, which has a pleasant, applelike flavor and reaches peak ripeness only when its skin is nearly black; the red banana, a firm fruit with a flowery scent; or the related plantain, which is starchier and less sweet.

In most American kitchens, however, regular bananas reign supreme. What matters the most is getting them to the stage of ripeness we prefer—and coming up with creative ways to use them once they pass their prime. Below are a few helpful hints:

BAKING WITH BANANAS

It’s a breeze to whip up banana bread or smoothies any time if you keep a store of frozen bananas in the freezer; it’s also an efficient use of overripe bananas. Simply place whole, unpeeled bananas into a plastic bag, then seal and freeze. When you’re ready to use, remove them from the freezer and thaw until softened.

If you are preparing a recipe with bananas from the fruit bowl, wait until the fruit is soft and darkly speckled. Avoid having to remove the stringy strands (called phloem) that cling to the fruit by peeling bananas from the bottom up.

BUYING ORGANIC

Bananas in tree

Photo courtesy of 123rf.com

Most bananas are grown in the tropics by huge producers that depend on heavy use of chemicals. Yet partly because their outer peel is removed before eating, bananas don’t top the list of produce items containing pesticide residue (peaches rank highest; to see a full list, visit foodnews.org).

However, it’s still important to buy organic bananas. They are generally easier to find than any other type of organic fruit and don’t cost a great deal more than conventional bananas. Most important, buying organic supports the smaller farms in Latin America and the Caribbean that use sustainable-farming methods, such as planting the bananas alongside tropical fruits and cacao trees to simulate rain-forest diversity.

RIPENING FRUIT

Bananas put off an exceptional amount of ethylene gas, which causes ripening and development of color. This makes it easy to ripen greenish bananas: Simply place them into a brown-paper bag or lidded container overnight. If you like, add apple, tomato or avocado, and the natural gasses from the fruits will help the ripening process of all of them.

If you don’t need to speed up ripening, keep the bananas in a bowl on the counter where they will take just slightly longer to achieve perfect ripeness. (A kitchen gadget called a banana hanger, which mimics the way supermarkets display bananas—suspending them from a pole with small hooks—does not speed ripening or improve banana quality.)


SOUR-CREAM BANANA BREAD

This moist banana bread freezes beautifully. Using four small pans allows you to keep a couple of loaves out for immediate snacking and store two in the freezer for later—although this bread is so delicious that you might want to devour all of it right away.

Photo by Laura PetrillaPreheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine 1/4 cup canola oil, 1 cup sugar and 2 large eggs. Beat hard with a whisk or electric mixer until light and creamy, at least 1 minute. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla extract and beat again. Mash 2 to 3 very ripe bananas (their skins should be speckled with brown) to make 1 cup. Add mashed bananas and 1/2 cup of sour cream to mixture and beat until smooth.

In a separate bowl, combine 11/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the dry ingredients to the banana-egg mixture and beat until well-combined and creamy. Divide among 4 greased and floured small, individual loaf pans (51/2 by 31/2 inches) and place the pans onto a baking sheet. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the tops are firm and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the pans and cool on a rack. Loaves will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days wrapped tightly in plastic wrap.


 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

The latest restaurant from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group brings Texas-style smoked meats and more to Downtown.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's Meg Cheever To Step Down

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's Meg Cheever To Step Down

The nonprofit's founding President and CEO will leave her position early next year.
Pittsburgh Pens' Spouse is ‘Hockey Wife’ On and Off Camera

Pittsburgh Pens' Spouse is ‘Hockey Wife’ On and Off Camera

After a Stanley Cup-winning season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, one player’s wife is working on her own claim to fame.
What to Do with Unused Churches in Pittsburgh

What to Do with Unused Churches in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh preservation group says there are approximately 30 unused churches in Allegheny County.
How Would You Make Pittsburgh's Liberty Avenue Better?

How Would You Make Pittsburgh's Liberty Avenue Better?

This week, your suggestions could have a significant impact on one of Downtown’s busiest streets.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Take a Hike: 10 of the Best Trails in the Pittsburgh Area

Lace up your sneakers or hiking boots and head outdoors for 10 great walks for spring.
412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

412 Food Rescue: Revolutionary Repurposing

Local nonprofit organization 412 Food Rescue is taking food that otherwise would be tossed aside and connecting it with those in need through-of-the-moment technology.
Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Spring Fashion: The Height of White

Fashion is white haute this spring with the best looks from local stores.
Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

The latest restaurant from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group brings Texas-style smoked meats and more to Downtown.
Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Daytripping: Brave the Cave

Go subterranean at Laurel Caverns, the largest cave in Pennsylvania.
For Pirates' Jameson Taillon: Pressure is a Privilege

For Pirates' Jameson Taillon: Pressure is a Privilege

As Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon enters his first full season with the big leagues, the weight of anticipation has given way to a need to deliver.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's Meg Cheever To Step Down

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's Meg Cheever To Step Down

The nonprofit's founding President and CEO will leave her position early next year.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Kamayan Feast Coming To Kaya in the Strip District

Kamayan Feast Coming To Kaya in the Strip District

Executive Chef Ben Sloan will offer a festive, eat-with-your-hands spread on Tuesday nights.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


The (Very Good) Brewery You Should Be Patronizing in Homestead

The (Very Good) Brewery You Should Be Patronizing in Homestead

Voodoo Brewery is an enticing alternative to the many chains in and around the Waterfront.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Steelers’ Philosophy Back on Display After Hightower Flirtation

Steelers’ Philosophy Back on Display After Hightower Flirtation

Even as they entertained Dont’a Hightower for nearly seven hours during a free-agent recruiting trip to the South Side, the Steelers never lost sight of who they are or what they’re all about.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Turn Your Bath into a Spa with These Oils

Turn Your Bath into a Spa with These Oils

The miniature bath- and shower-oil collection from Aromatherapy Associates makes every shower a luxury experience.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The CMU Film Fest Opens with One of 2016's Best

The CMU Film Fest Opens with One of 2016's Best

Reviews of two films appearing at the 2017 Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival: "I, Daniel Blake," and "The Eagle Huntress." Plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
#Wedding: What’s Trending in the Wedding World

#Wedding: What’s Trending in the Wedding World

Married couples talk hashtags — and why they used them at their weddings.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Get the Scoop Behind One of Pittsburgh’s Most Unique Condos

Get the Scoop Behind One of Pittsburgh’s Most Unique Condos

The Carnegie Museum of Art’s new exhibit features the works of architect Arthur Lubetz and Front Studio, including the vibrant Glass Lofts Building in Garfield.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
New Club is a Hit at Thiel College

New Club is a Hit at Thiel College

The Outdoor Recreation Club becomes the newest student organization at the college.

Comments