Banana—Extraordinary Ordinary Things

Throughout this series of blogs, I have concentrated on “gadgets,” i.e. mechanical, electric, or electronic devices that have fundamentally affected the world. So far they have included the bicycle, the credit card, the elevator, the postage stamp, the toothbrush, and the wristwatch. The banana, being a product of agriculture, is of course not a gadget. However, its effects on the world have been significant, even primordial, in areas far surpassing agriculture such as art, literature, show business, humor, and even intelligent design. I, therefore, believe the “humble” banana is far from humble, and richly deserves a place of prominence on the list of what I like to call “Extraordinary Ordinary Things.”

A Bit of Background

Several years ago I read a novel set in Europe somewhere around 1910. I remember a particular scene where a young boy riding on a train is offered a banana to assuage his hunger. It was the first banana he had ever seen. He had heard of bananas but had never actually seen one— and certainly never expected to actually eat one.

To a modern reader, this scene might seem ridiculous, if not surreal. Today, bananas are the most commonly eaten fruit in the world; available virtually everywhere. In 2018 bananas account for an estimated $13.6 billion in export sales, with a retail value of $22–26 billion. This is the current peak on an ever-upward trend. The estimated value of banana shipments in 2014 already stood at an impressive $11.1 billion (retail value $18–21 billion), translating into an average 22.5 percent increase over this latest five-year period.

I was particularly drawn to this passage of the novel because I too once had an almost surreal experience with bananas.

In the mid-1960s I was a volunteer math and physics teacher in the then newly-independent country of Tanzania. Coming from Los Angeles, I had been warned prices in Tanzania, as in most developing countries, were considerably lower than what I had been used to, so I would need to adjust. And I thought I had.

Several weeks later I was traveling by train from my school on Lake Victoria to the coastal city of Dar Es Salaam (then the Tanzanian capital) several hundred miles away. The train made numerous stops along the way. Each time it did, it was surrounded by local vendors trying to sell their produce. One vendor had a large tray of bananas. Being slightly hungry, I asked him how much they were. He told me. As I had been advised, the price sounded ridiculously low. I asked for five to get me through to the end of the trip and handed over the money. To my astonishment, instead of handing back five bananas, he gave me five bunches of bananas, each bearing from four to six pieces of fruit. Suddenly, instead of having just enough bananas for me, I had enough for everyone in the compartment, which I gladly offered and they gladly accepted.

What Is a Banana?

We, of course, all know what a banana is. It is a long, yellowish fruit that grows on banana trees. Its skin (peel) can easily be pulled away to reveal a firm, tasty inside that is enjoyed around the world.

This is largely correct, but for a few fundamental details.

The botanical name for banana is “Musa sapientum,” which translates as “fruit of the wise man.” The name in English derives from the Arabic word “banan,” meaning fingertips.

However, perhaps the most surprising thing about the banana is that it does not grow on trees. Botanically, the banana is classified as an herb. Among other things, this means that the “trunk” of a banana plant is not made of wood, but rather tightly overlapping leaves.

Perhaps also surprising is that botanists classify the banana as a berry, putting it into the same class as blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, black currents, red currents, and white currants.

For the diet-conscious, a medium-sized banana contains only 95 calories. Moreover, it contains neither fat, cholesterol, nor sodium, which is viewed as another dietic advantage.

The banana constitutes perhaps the best (or worst) example of the worldwide influence of globalization and scientific farming.

If you go into a supermarket to buy apples, you don’t go in just to buy apples but usually a specific variety, e.g. Cox, Granny Smith, Jonagold, McIntosh, Red Delicious, etc. Likewise with pears, e.g. Anjou, Asian, Comice, Bartletts, Bosc, Forelle, Taylor’s gold, etc. It is the same with a number of other fruits. However, if you are buying bananas, that’s probably as far as it goes; unless you consider Chiquita and Dole varieties, which they aren’t. They are brand names.

As with other fruits, there is a long list of varieties of bananas. So how is it that in supermarkets about the only variety you will find is standard sized and occasionally the diminutive finger bananas?

This is because the major consuming countries of the world are not also producers. You wouldn’t expect to see banana plantations in North America. Nor would you expect to see them in most European countries. You would expect to see banana plantations in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru, as well as a number of African and Asia countries such as Bangladesh, Burundi, India, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, etc., much of whose produce is shipped to Europe and North America.

The fact is, bananas are one of the most consumed and cheapest fruits worldwide. They are also the world’s most traded fruit and the fifth most traded agricultural product. According to one source, bananas generate more sales in Walmart than any other product they sell—all other products, not just fruits and vegetables!

So why the lack of varieties (virtually none) available to consumers? To ensure supply at the source for shipping to consumers, bananas must be intensively farmed. In most cases, small, independent farmers in producer countries would not be able to meet the demand, so much of the global trade in bananas is in the hands of giant multinational corporates with the wherewithal to organize growing for maximize yield and minimize wastage.

The need to ship bananas long distances from producer countries to consumer countries has given rise to a very complex and sophisticated supply chain. Moving bananas from plantation to market is a high-tech business, involving complicated shipping schedules and expensive, cooled containers. Only a couple of varieties are suitable to ensure freshness and lack of bruising and other damage to the fruit en route. This is why you see brand names, such as Chiquita and Dole, on the supermarket shelves as a sign of quality, but essentially no varietal names.  

Evolution of the Banana

Global trading and marketing companies are using scientific farming to produce an even better banana variety to meet the world’s increasing demand. However, what they come up with will probably not be remarkably different from the supermarket banana we know today.

Today’s standardization of the banana belies the fact that throughout its thousands of years of history, the banana has undergone remarkable biological changes. Even if you could have had a banana only three or four centuries ago, you probably wouldn’t have eaten it, because it was largely inedible.

Bananas are classified as fruit. Botanically, this means that a plant’s seeds for reproduction are located inside the fruit itself and released when the fruit is eaten or rots, like apples,  oranges, grapes, etc. But when is the last time you saw seeds in a banana? They are there if you look closely; they are almost microscopic black dots lightly sprinkled around the fruit’s flesh. However, before the modern banana was developed, they would have been unmistakable because they were the size of corn kernels and quite inedible.

It is important to note reducing the size of the seeds in the banana renders them sterile, i.e. you can’t produce a new banana plant by putting these seeds into the ground. New banana plants are created by cutting and replanting fertile parts of the existing banana plant, which is a rather labor-intensive procedure.  

The Banana and Society: Language

Since going from hardly known to being ubiquitously popular in just a bit over a century, it was almost inevitable that the banana and references to the banana would have affected the language. English abounds with banana idioms.

  • Top banana: Common in show business, the top banana is the star of the show. Essentially the same as first violin, first flute, first trumpet, etc. in an orchestra.
  • Second banana: Also common in show business, the second banana is a performer of lesser glory in a show. However, unlike first violin, first flute, first trumpet, etc. in an orchestra, the term second banana is often pejorative, i.e. rather than being simply a description, it is an opinion.
  • Banana oil: Flattering, insincere, or self-serving talk, such as “This is truly a great investment. I’m not just feeding you banana oil.” In reality, banana oil is a banana-scented liquid ester (amyl acetate). Derived from amyl alcohol, it is used primarily as a paint solvent and an artificial flavoring.
  • One-banana problem: A one-banana problem is a conundrum, project, or task that requires little or no effort, expertise, or intelligence to successfully deal with. The phrase probably stems from the notion that a trained (banana-eating) monkey could successfully handle the situation.
  • Go bananas: Go crazy.
  • That’s just bananas; it’s bananas: That’s crazy.
  • Banana-head: A stupid person.
  • “Bananas in Pajamas”: An Australian children’s TV series. Premiered n July 1992, it was subsequently syndicated to be shown in numerous other countries and dubbed into numerous other languages. The leading characters actually were bananas wearing pajamas.
  • Banana split: A dessert typically made by splitting a banana lengthwise, laying the two halves along the edges of a long-serving dish, then filling in the space between the banana halves with three scopes of ice cream (traditionally vanilla), topped with whipped cream, cherries, and chopped nuts.
  • Banana republic: A small country whose economy depends on either one internally-produced commodity or the revenue generated by foreign companies or investors. The term derives from the fact that so many developing countries produce bananas as their major cash crop to sell abroad. As an undertone, banana republic also suggests an inefficient or corrupt government. “The opposition party is trying to turn our great nation into a banana republic!”
  • Banana skin: An action that results in an unforeseen and embarrassing consequence. “Be careful about what you are planning to do. It looks like a real banana skin.
  • Slip on a banana skin (peel): A favorite visual device in early silent comedy films where someone literally does slips on a banana skin (peel) and ends up flat on their back.
  • Have one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana peel. Be in a risky, unstable situation that could suddenly change, and not for the better.
  • Banana hammock: A very skimpy male bikini.
  • Banana nose: An adjective designating someone or something with an exceedingly large nose roughly in the shape of a banana. For example, banana nose dog (in general), banana nose bull terrier (in specific), and banana nose monkey. Legendary comedian Jimmy Durante (1893-1980), who had quite a pronounced proboscis, was quoted as saying to a fan, “Lady, that ain’t no banana. That’s my nose.”

The Banana and Society: Retailing

John Soluri, a Carnegie Mellon University historian, says because they are so popular, “Supermarkets view bananas as a loss leader. They use their (artificially low) price to get you into the store.” And of course, while you are there, you buy other things with a nice profit margin.

Using loss leaders in retailing is not unusual. However, they usually come in the form of a special promotion “for a limited time only.” With bananas, there is no time limit. The price is always artificially low.

The Banana and Society: Music

Songs also celebrate the banana. Who can forget Harry Belefonte’s plaintive “Banana Boat Song” (“Work all night on a drink of rum; daylight come and me wanna go home. Stack banana till the morning come; daylight come and me wanna go home”). Or “Yellow Bird” by numerous artists (“Yellow bird, up high in banana tree. Yellow bird, you sit all alone like me. Did your lady friend leave your nest again? That is very sad, makes me feel so bad”).

However, probably the most enduring song about bananas dates back to 1923. This novelty ditty relates the sad story of a customer who goes into a grocery store to buy his favorite fruit, only to be informed they are all out. Its title is “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and it goes like this:

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, he never answers “no”
He just yes’es you to death, and as he takes your dough
He tells you
“Yes, we have no bananas
We have-a no bananas today
We’ve string beans, and onions
Cabbages, and scallions
And all sorts of fruit and say
We have an old fashioned to-mah-to
A Long Island po-tah-to
But yes, we have no bananas
We have no bananas today.”

Most people probably don’t know the lyrics, but the joyously sung refrain “Yes, we have no bananas” is unforgettable.

The Banana and Society: Politics

The banana might be partially responsible for Brexit, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

A major criticism of the E.U. has long been that it is over regulates and many of its regulations are tedious, if not absurd. Whether or not this is true is open to debate. What is clear is that opponents of the E.U. occasionally pick false and ridiculous examples to promote their case.

A few years ago, the cause célèbre was the shape of the banana. The story was that the E.U. was dictating straight bananas, rather than the curved ones with which we are so familiar. What this regulation actually required was that bananas could not have “abnormal curvature,” although the acceptable degree of curvature was not defined. But it certainly didn’t mandate no curvature at all.

The curvature (“bendiness”) of bananas was part of a broader regulation to harmonize disparate regulation previously set by individual national governments.

European Commission Commission regulation 2257/94 decreed bananas, in general, should be “free from malformation or abnormal curvature.” Those sold as “extra class” must be perfect, “class 1” can have “slight defects of shape,” and “class 2” can have full-scale “defects of shape.” The regulation was instituted in response to a pragmatic concern of importers, the need to know exactly what they will be getting when they unbox bananas from a far-off country.

The Banana and Society: Humor

The banana has given rise to a virtually endless number of jokes. Most of them seem to be childish puns (a play on words) or just plain silly. For example:

  • Why are bananas never lonely? Because they hang around in bunches.
  • Why did the banana go out with the plum? Because he couldn’t find a date.
  • What should you do if you see a blue banana? Try to cheer it up.
  • How did the unripe banana feel about the ripe banana? It was green with envy.
  • What is the most dangerous fruit? A banana with a machine gun.

If you are more of an intellectual, try these.

  • Which Beethoven symphony was inspired by a banana? The Fifth: Ba-na-na-NAAA! Ba-na-na-NAAA! 
  • What is the chemical formula for a banana? BaNa2.
  • How is a banana peel on the floor like music? Because if you don’t C sharp, you’ll B flat.

Intelligent Design

Frankly, I don’t know how to introduce this section. You can consider that it is either serious (this is how it was originally presented) or an elaborate joke, which it was later declared to be. I am referring to a famous 2:53 minute video produced by New Zealand-born (now American) TV evangelist Ray Comfort in 2006.

The premise of the middle segment of the video is the banana proves intelligent design. It shows Comfort and fellow evangelist (and former child actor) Kirk Cameron sitting outdoors with the bucolic scene of a lake and a forest in the background.

Comfort holds up an object and says, “Behold, the banana—the atheist’s nightmare.” Next, he says, “If you study a well-made banana, you will find…” then lists and demonstrates features he asserts could only have come from an intelligent designer.

  • The banana is shaped to fit perfectly into the human hand, including ridges for easy gripping.
  • Bananas are endowed with a protective, non-slip surface, which is biodegradable.
  • On the top of the banana, there is a pull tab (such as on a soft drink can) for easy opening.
  • It is curved and just the right shape to fit into the mouth.
  • Bananas don’t squirt into the eater’s face while being consumed.
  • It is easy to chew and digest.
  • The banana has a simple color-coding system to show ripeness: green, too early; yellow, just right; black, too late.

When I first came across this video, I was convinced it must be a joke, as did many other people. Not surprisingly, it was heaped with scorn, winning Comfort the derisory title of the “Banana Man.” Sometime later, Mr. Comfort did himself claim it was meant as a joke. However, the exegesis on the banana is sandwiched between a segment on the magnificent intelligent design of the pull-tab soft drink can and the magnificent intelligent design of the human eye. I leave it to you to judge.

The Banana and Computing

Because banana growing is such an intensive form of agriculture (and increasingly other forms of agriculture), it should not be surprising that there are computer programs to significantly take the risk out of the enterprise. There are even companies and websites devoted to the subject. For example, in addition to bananas, Farmsoft offers 11 other software packages for cultivating specific crops (apples, asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, cranberry, etc.) as well as several farm management programs.

One of the more interesting applications of computing to banana farming is the “e-nose.” This MOS based electronic device is used for predicting banana quality indices such as total soluble solids (TSS), titratable acidity (TA), pH, and firmness at different stages of shelf-life. Clearly, the longer bananas can maintain their customer-appealing characteristics in the supermarket, the better.

As noted in one research paper on the subject, “In recent years, monitoring and controlling of fruits ripeness are a challenging issue in the fruit industry since the state of ripeness during harvest, storage, and market distribution defines the quality of the final product (on supermarket shelves) . . . So far, many methods of shelf-life monitoring have already been proposed, such as chemical analysis and spectroscopy. The main drawbacks of these methods are that they are not practical for commercial applications because they have a destructive and labor-intensive nature.”

Non-destructive banana ripeness determination using a neural network-based electronic device (e-nose) was developed in the late 1990s specifically to overcome these problems. Similar devices for other fruit crops are also now in wide use.

At a more fundamental level, the banana has found a place in computer aptitude tests. For example, the University of Kent (United Kingdom) poses the following two questions on its computing aptitude test:

  • In a counting system used by intelligent apes. a banana = 1; 6 is represented by an orange and two bananas. An orange is worth half a mango.
    • What is the value of two mangos, an orange, and a banana?
    • What is two mangos and an orange divided by an orange with a banana?

Of course, the psychologists who devised the aptitude test didn’t have to choose a banana; they could have chosen any other fruit the wanted. However, they were talking about intelligent apes, who are so closely associated with bananas, so not to have used the yellow fruit would have seemed perverse.

The problem is, the picture of apes and related primates eating bananas in the wild is itself perverse, because they don’t.

When we think of bananas we envision a domesticated fruit not found in the wild. We are used to seeing such primates eating a banana in zoos, but when roaming free they couldn’t eat a banana even if they wanted to because they would never find one.

In defense of the University of Kent, they devised an aptitude test for budding young computer scientists and programmers, not botanists and zoologists.

In case you couldn’t solve the two banana problems—and shame on you if you couldn’t—here are the solutions.

  • Banana = 1, orange = 4, mango = 8. So 8 + 8 + 4 + 1 = 21
  • (8 + 8 + 4) / (4 + 1) = 4 = orange

The seductive power of the banana can sometimes take over even the most rational of minds. In 2003 ACM published a very scholarly paper under the title “BANANAS: An Evolutionary Framework for Explicit and Multipath Routing in the Internet.” I assumed BANANAS was an acronym, but I couldn’t find anywhere in the paper what it means. Finally, I discovered it in a footnote.

The authors explained BANANAS was not an acronym, but rather an homage to the film “Herbie Goes Bananas.” Released in 1980, “Herbie Goes Bananas” is one of a series of family comedies starting with “The Love Bug” in 1968. They all recount the adventures of a Volkswagen Beetle, which, having a mind of its own, sometimes suddenly takes control of the vehicle away from the driver, usually to help him or her get out of some kind of a preposterous mess.

The paper’s footnote does not explain why the authors chose to honor the film by using the term BANANAS in their otherwise very scholarly exegesis. I can’t help but wonder if they were making on oblique reference to the concept of the self-driving car (autonomous vehicle), which today has come to fruition. Remember, the phrase “to go bananas” is a picturesque way of saying  “to go crazy.”