Veggie of the Week - Bananas
sponsored by Coleman Farms
Bananas haven't been available at the Santa Barbara Farmers' Market for several years. It's possible to produce bananas in Santa Barbara County, but only just: more than a few miles from the coast it's too dry in the Summer and risks being too cold in the Winter, and while the best areas, for instance the sunny, humid and warm microclimate at la Conchita, produce good fruit, they don't produce them in the considerable yield of a tropical site. Bananas are nevertheless a subject of interest here precisely because they're not available at the Farmers' Market: discussing bananas reveals some of the ramifications of the production and transport of imported produce.
First, there's the economic impact of growing bananas on the scale required for export. Like a lot of large-scale agriculture, growing bananas is fairly capital intensive: apart from needing a fair amount of land, there's the up-front investment required to put in a plantation without prospect of substantial return for a few years. This kind of investment in California, for a vineyard, say, goes largely unnoticed by the huge capital market in the state, but bananas are different, because they're exported from countries with economies, let alone capital markets, that would disappear in the balance sheet of a large California county. In such a country, bananas grown for export can constitute a major part of the money economy, and the relatively few growers, whether indigenous or foreign, have a lot of concentrated economic power, and so, typically also political power.
Historically this has not always been used in enlightened ways, but doing something about this has posed a conundrum for those who object: if the export trade in bananas were to stop, it would reduce this concentration of political and economic power, but it would also remove a large number of people from a money economy. The so-called Fair Trade practice has been suggested as a remedy, but it's not clear to me how this would affect concentration of capital, or even sharing of profits.
Growing bananas for an export market tends to result in large monocropped plantations. Monocropping is inimical to local biodiversity, and in the tropics, with their very diverse natural habitats connected by migrations to many far away places, reduction of biodiversity may have local and far-reaching consequences. Monocropping, too, typically requires aggressive pest control and soil enrichment, and this is true of bananas. Some of these concerns would be addressed by organic farming, and one does see bananas labelled 'organic' in the stores, but given the leeway allowed by the USDA standards, who knows what this means? Large scale banana farming, organic or not, is bound to have adverse environmental impacts, but it's difficult to know what or how serious these are, just because bananas are grown thousands of miles away in an alien environment.
This geographical and cultural remoteness can make it difficult for these to be interesting questions, even.
Distance means shipping. Shipping means a number of things, but today the first thing likely to come up is "fuel". Export bananas are all shipped by sea, and in sealanes blessed with mostly temperate weather, so while bananas might be shipped under sail, they aren't, but depend on Diesel, instead. However, there are things here of more immediate concern than fuel to the banana eater: ripe bananas are very fragile things - they'll bruise if you look crosseyed at them, and are impossible to ship commercially farther than the nearest village. So, bananas for export are picked green - seriously green - and allowed to ripen, or partially ripen, somewhere close to the point of sale, with final ripening being left to somewhere in your home.
Green picked bananas ripen well, but the artificial ripening process depends on a number of parameters and is difficult to get just right, so the end result, the banana you're about to eat, can vary considerably from one shopping trip to another, notably in sweetness, odor, and texture. However well-controlled, artificially ripened fruit are bound to be at a disadvantage relative to their tree-ripened siblings. Moreover, only a few varieties seem to respond well to this sort of treatment, so the commercial bananas available in this country are doubly disadvantaged compared to those at a roadside stand, or the ones once available at the Farmers' Markets, picked nearly ripe and in several distinct looking and tasting varieties.
The common commercial banana is so familiar that the fruit itself calls for little discussion. It's nutritionally useful since it contains significant quantities of a suite of B vitamins, a lot of potassium and vitamin C and is easily digestible with a sensible proportioning of fibre, more or less complex carbohydrates, and simple ones, so they make excellent snacks. They're also interesting to use in combinations - fairly ripe bananas spread easily and make a nice substitute for jam. Peanut butter and banana on whole wheat gives a sandwich loaded with potassium, a fair amount of iron and B vitamins and lots of fiber. If that's not interesting there's the flavor - the banana works with peanut butter (or chopped nuts) the same way honey does, but leaves the nuts in the foreground. It's also an active sandwich to eat, given the dynamics of ripe banana under pressure. Bananas figure largely as a topping or garnish over cereals, and in fruit salads, and let's not forget the smoothie.
A friend goes through huge amounts of very ripe (and often deeply discounted) bananas this way. His freezer always has baggies of peeled bananas ready to jump into the liquidizer to thicken and sweeten a smoothie.
There's a variety of opinion about what constitutes 'ripe' in a banana. At one extreme are those who will not eat a banana whose skin has gone all yellow, and at the other, those who are willing to face the brownish translucent goo of a really ripe one, with largely black skin. My suggestion is open mind and open mouth. Only a really green banana is pretty much inedible. Greenish ones you can eat, and you'll find something more like a vegetable than a fruit, since the sugar content is low and the starch correspondingly higher, and the starchiness is accompanied by a slight astringency. At the other extreme you've got something that's like jam, but, well, there's the inconsistent, fibrous texture (similar to an Hachiya persimmon), those little black specks, and a rather unpleasant color. On the other hand, you've got intense sweetness and odor, the latter produced by a natural chemical that's something like an alcohol, I think.
In between these extremes of ripeness you've got fruit with a range of honey overtones and sometimes very strong suggestions of other fruit, pear and apricot, for example, or of blossoms, with the texture going from somewhat hard to avocado to very spreadable.
Although you'll see mainly Cavendish bananas at large stores, sometimes accompanied by the small 'finger' bananas, which have a very different texture and flavor, and occasionally the red cooking bananas, smaller markets that cater to customers hailing from banana producing regions will have more varieties of both eating and cooking bananas which might be worth trying. You may also be interested in experimenting with cooking bananas. These are often used green, but ripe (yellow skinned) ones can be very nice cooked together with steamed vegetables. The cooked plantain is soft and sweet, something like a sweet potato, though neither as soft nor as sweet, and tasting like banana but also like manioc. It works very well with such things as chile, onions and garlic.