Going bananas

Food - Bee Wilson traces the growth curve of the world's favourite fruit

After grapes, bananas are the world's most widely consumed fruit. Indeed, considering that bananas, unlike grapes, are not used to make wine, they are, in effect, the most widely consumed fruit of all. These comical yellow fruits (or, technically, herbs) are also, surprisingly, the top-selling item in almost all British supermarkets, outselling any single brand of milk, bread or washing-up liquid. Bananas are the seasonless fruit, the universal addition to the shopping trolley, desired by both slimmers and bodybuilders, source of potassium and vitamin C, sustainer of the toothless whether young or old, cheap enough not to hesitate over, expensive only in food miles and undervalued labour, though even some of these doubts may be allayed by "fair trade" fruit. It is almost impossible to think one's way back into a world where banana imports were rare, a world of "Yes, we have no bananas", a world of postwar scarcity in which Evelyn Waugh could torture his children by peeling exotic bananas in front of them and wolfing them down with cream and sugar without offering them so much as a taste.

The responsibility for turning bananas into a world-class commodity in the first place rests largely with a Brooklyn entrepreneur called Minor Keith, whose very name is reminiscent of the American adventurers of Conan Doyle. Minor Keith had already made some money on the railroads when, in 1899, he looked south to what would later be called the "banana republics" and founded the United Fruit Company. Very soon, United Fruit had developed a near-monopoly over world banana sales. It marketed bananas to the American public using the cartoon character Miss Chiquita Banana, a take-off of Carmen Miranda that wore a flamboyant banana hat.

United Fruit was also responsible for promoting the idea that sliced bananas were the perfect thing to add to breakfast cereal, a stroke of genius, coinciding with the escalating consumption of boxed sugary cereals as part of the all-American breakfast. By 1955, United Fruit was one of the 100 largest US corporations. Meanwhile, back in Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador, United Fruit came to control as many as 1,000 miles of railroad, employing 60,000 workers over 1.7 million acres of land. Achieving this kind of success entailed sharp practice. As one historian observes: "Through bribery, fraud, chicanery, strong-arm tactics, extortion, tax evasion and subversion it grew to be a swaggering behemoth." United Fruit became known as "the octopus", with tentacles everywhere. In the Seventies, the bribes began to backfire, debts accumulated, and the stranglehold loosened. In 1989, United Fruit was taken over by Carl Lindner, the richest man in Cincinnati. He changed the company name to Chiquita Brands International Inc and decided to focus once again on bananas, trying to recapture the magic of the Miss Chiquita years. But Chiquita was hit hard by the banana wars between the EU and the US, and is, at the time of writing, in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings. Yet bananas themselves go from strength to strength, sliced on to ever more bowls of breakfast cereal, inserted like medicine into the mouths of ever more tennis players.

It's not hard to see why bananas have become so ubiquitous; but sometimes it is hard to think of their strangely thick white flesh as an ingredient rather than just instant nourishment. Readers' suggestion columns often give recipes for outlandish things such as curried banana soup, but it is best to keep things simple. With underripe bananas, a good way to cook them is briefly, in butter, with a squeeze of Seville orange and a little sugar at the end. With overripe bananas, the obvious answer is cake, but try these souffles instead - although they have all the vanilla-rich fragrance of banana bread, they are much lighter and luxier. The recipe comes by way of the San Francisco food writer Flo Bracker.

Banana souffle

Makes six small or one large souffle

You need 3 large egg yolks, I cup plain flour, one-eighth tsp salt, 1 cup whole milk, I cup light brown sugar, 2 tbs butter, 1 cup ripe mashed bananas, 1 tbs dark rum or bourbon, 1 tsp vanilla essence (preferably Culpeper Tahitian), 6 large egg whites, I cup granulated sugar, plus some extra butter and sugar for coating the souffle dishes.

Whisk together the eggs with the flour and salt. Mix the brown sugar and milk, bring just to boiling point, then whisk gradually into the egg yolk mixture, before returning to the pan over a gentle heat until it is smooth and thick (a couple of minutes). Remove from the heat, stir in the butter and leave to cool (covered in cling film to avoid a skin forming).

Preheat the oven to 180oC (350oF). Grease and sugar the souffle dish or dishes. Stir mashed bananas, rum and vanilla into the cooled mixture. Whisk the egg whites until soft peaks form, then gradually add the granulated sugar and continue to whisk. Fold the two mixtures carefully together, spoon into the prepared dish or dishes and bake (15-20 minutes for small souffles, 30-40 minutes for one large dish).

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Take cover: evil is back