Tag Archives: food

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

I’ve never really thought much about the banana. I was terrified of them as a child, suspecting that there were deadly poisonous spiders concealed within each bunch. I’ve gotten a little older now, and occasionally enjoy them, but they’ve not really ever been on my mind until I read Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World that tells the reader all about its past, its present, and its future.

Dan Koeppel, the author of Banana, has a wonderful sense of humor throughout the book. He actually goes to visit banana plantations and other notable locations, such as Leuven, Belgium, the seat of banana research. I found his levity delightful; I like microhistories, but not those that take themselves so seriously as to squish the fun out of their topics.

The first thing Koeppel does that I think is great is explore how bananas most likely spread throughout the tropics. He makes the important point that plants, unlike us animals with our easily (in comparison) bones, plants are made of materials that don’t fossilize well. The path of the banana is a guessing game, one that has better odds now that there is genetic testing, but it’s still not perfect.

The majority of Banana, though, is spent discussing the more recent history of the fruit. I found it most interesting that United Fruit Company (what became Chiquita) allowed its competitors to survive only to avoid anti-trust lawsuits. The businesspeople behind the companies were something else — I think it’s incredible how ruthless the leaders of fruit packing companies were. You think fruit and you think happy, but that’s not often the case.

Koeppel talks extensively about the conditions on the ground in Central America. Workers were treated as if they weren’t human, but animals; when they tried to stand up for themselves, the fruit companies got the local (or American) governments to squelch the rebellions. The banana literally helped shape the way government functions today in Central America. How sad it is that it’s often a brutal and militaristic regime that’s in power.

Even more interesting is the disease that killed the banana type most eaten before the 1940s — the gros michel. It was not immune to Panama disease, but the Cavendish was. Thus, we now eat the Cavendish … but it’s not immune to all forms of Panama disease, only those found in Central America. The thought is that the banana will eventually die out like the gros michel, and it’s up to us to find another variety, create another variety (which is difficult with an asexual organism), or find a way to beat Panama disease.

Koeppel presents the banana in both a fun and a serious way, interspersing humor with gravity well. I think anyone who likes microhistory will enjoy Banana.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Filed under 4.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

The World Is Fat by Barry Popkin

An advertisement from a publishing company about books in the food studies area came through our department a couple of weeks ago. I happened upon The World Is Fat from there. After all, I’ve enjoyed books like this in the past — maybe I’m a little masochistic and like to hear all about what we’re doing wrong. Remarkably, for a book that’s so short, Popkin manages to fit in quite a bit of repetition, and not even in an interesting way.

One interesting thing about The World Is Fat is that Popkin follows a couple of families (well, composite families) here in the United States, as well as his own upbringing in the middle of the century, and also talks about the habits of two families in India — one modern one, and one from the 1960s. I liked the insight into how families behaved in the mid-1900s.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t save this book from being one piece of repetitive propaganda. Popkin’s main issue is sugary drinks. (A lot of which he calls soda, which drives me nuts on another level — it’s pop!) Okay, we get it after you’ve said that pop, juice, and milk aren’t good for us. Except, sometimes milk is good for us. That story is never really fully ironed out. That’s not a problem for me personally, and I really think that most people know that, if you’re drinking regular Coke, you’re getting calories. The American media are saturated with this information about where your “hidden calories” are coming from.

Popkin discusses briefly how exercise and activity can help, and that McDonald’s has made steps in the right direction. It’s a shame that he doesn’t do a better job of pulling these other ideas into the spotlight; it’d be nice to read about other issues with the global food culture other than that people drink caloric drinks. I’d love to hear more about how the other aspects are serious (for example, he discusses briefly that other fast food outlets are going high-calorie and whether that has made an impact on sales for either them or McDonald’s), but I came away with a taste for saccharine — literally — and little else.

For such a short book, perhaps Popkin didn’t feel that he had room to include other issues. If it truly thought that, he should have called the book How Drinks Made the World Fat. It would be a more fitting title for a book so focused that advertised itself as a comprehensive study.

Rating: 1.5/5.

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Filed under 1.5/5, Book review, Nonfiction, Unfavorable