Bananas (the Musa species) are native to tropical southern Asia and Australia, and most likely were first domesticated in Papua, New Guinea. Currently, they are grown in over 130 countries, primarily for their fruit, but in some countries are used for alcoholic beverages and ornamental plants. The largest producers of bananas in 2016 were India and China with 29.1 tons and 13.1 tons, respectively. On a smaller scale, the Philippines, Ecuador and some parts of Latin America also export.
It’s likely bananas were introduced to the Americas by Portuguese sailors, who brought the fruit from West Africa in the 16th century. (They probably ate a significant amount en route.) From there they traveled north to New Orleans and took awhile to catch on, but at the Philadelphia Centennial Expo in 1876, they made a big splash. Fast forward a few years and the food became more popular, yet still not well known in Europe (apparently French chefs had not been introduced.) They hung around in New Orleans for almost a century before famous Brennan’s Restaurant created “Bananas Foster,” a rich sweet dessert made with brown sugar, dark rum and lots of butter, served over ice cream. (What took them so long?)
There is no mention of bananas in any journals or recipes of foodie president Thomas Jefferson, and it is highly unlikely that he ever served them at his famous dinners. With his passion for fruits and gardening, he surely would have embraced them, but sadly, he missed out. They didn’t gain popularity until 50 years later.
The common banana variety is called the Cavendish. and of course Chiquita and Dole dominate the worldwide industry. The biggest food product sold at Walmart stores (drum roll) is bananas, a whopping 1.5 billion pounds in 2015. No surprise when you consider that the average American eats 26 pounds per year. Although there has been much negative press predicting bananas, as we know them, may be wiped out shortly, due to genetic alterations and parasitic and virus infestation, it’s likely that other varieties will raise up and take the place of the Cavendish, so fear not.
Hawaii has its own banana industry, mostly for local consumption, along with Florida and a smattering of other states which grow a modest amount, but this is one crop which will probably never dominate the U.S. either for domestic use or exportation. We simply don’t have the climates for them.
A first cousin, the plantain has never really caught on in the U.S., but Asian, South American and African countries use both bananas and plantains frequently in their cooking. More starchy than sweet, they are considered a vegetable and rarely eaten in their raw state. Frequently fried or mashed, they are a common street food in Africa and Asia. as well as included in stews and soups, or served with fish. Some celebrity chefs have featured them on the Food Network, using them in pancakes, fritters, and spicy fried slices, but the American cuisine does not really lend itself to plantains, preferring the garden variety banana instead. If you are an adventurous cook, you might want to consider searching out plantains and whipping up a new dish over the weekend.
Americans consume bananas in a number of different ways, including banana bread, banana splits, chocolate-covered frozen bananas, banana pudding, banana cream pie, sliced onto breakfast cereal, and dried chips for snacking. They also sport a few catchy phrases applied to them, like slipping on a peel, or a silly, yet popular old song, “Yes, we have no bananas.” (And monkeys really like them.)
Late to the party, bananas have catapulted to the top of the hit parade of fruits and continue to reign, from baby’s first solid food to grandma’s favorite snack, and everywhere in between. Featured prominently in every produce section, we automatically reach for them. So go ahead. Go bananas.