The search for a better banana

The Panama disease is wiping out the Cavendish — shades of Big Mike of yesteryear

While there are many staple fruits — apples, oranges, strawberries, etc — it is the banana that stands out the most, and the fruit I probably eat the most.

The simple banana is easy to take along anywhere you go.

Lately, though, I’ve been getting accustomed to red bananas, miniature bananas and other strange varieties. The days of the staple banana — known more formally as the Cavendish — most likely are numbered.

A fungus is causing problems in world banana supplies, where they grow in Africa, China and Australia. This fungus — known as the Panama disease — is causing the plants to wilt and rot. Despite its name, the Panama disease has not yet found its way to South American banana crops, which supply the North American market. But that point is likely approaching.

So the banana industry is trying to find an alternative, though a mysterious new banana that is resistant to the Panama disease is still either undiscovered or a closely guarded secret. Perhaps the new banana is already on the shelf, in the form of those red or miniature bananas. Maybe it will be a plantain that comes with cooking instructions and a packet of sugar to get the right banana flavour.

It’s not the first time in history that the top banana has been superceded. Up until the 1950s, the Gros Michel, or Big Mike, was the main variety imported into the United States and Canada. But a relative of the disease currently decimating the Cavendish saw to the end of Big Mike in all but far removed places.

Today there are still people out there who cultivate the Gros Michel to get a chance to sample the banana which is described as a more “creamy and delicious” variation than the Cavendish.

In fact, back when the banana industry was looking for a Gros Michel replacement, they thought of the Cavendish as nothing more than a “garbage banana” not fit for consumption.

The banana industry was wrong about the Cavendish. The world forgot about the Big Mike in favour of the Cavendish.

Of course, the success of the Cavendish had a lot to do with a successful advertising campaign, one that highlighted the potential of a banana peel left discarded on the ground — the slippery potential. And so the banana became a staple fruit — and the eternal reputation of a cause of accidents to people and vehicles.

Was the Gros Michel remembered for its slippery qualities? I doubt it.

The end of the banana that fills up the fruit section at the grocery store is still likely a decade or two off, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t cherish it while it lasts. Even if it’s just for the laughs that come from someone having an unfortunate slip. The real question is: can one slip on a plantain or a miniature banana? Did anyone ever slip on a Gros Michel? They apparently did.

The banana peel slip was first reported back in 19th century Victorian England and likely started in the early days of cinema, as a more proper stand-in for the horse droppings that would’ve littered the cobblestone streets. So perhaps it was not the banana that had such slippery and embarrassing tendencies.

But back to the banana, if it’s on its way out in the next decade then I’m not going to be caught looking back longingly at the past banana. Instead I’m going to be sowing some banana seeds for the future — if only to keep a form of slapstick comedy alive.

Arne Petryshen is a reporter at the Cranbrook Daily Townsman