Object lesson No 39

17th November 2000 at 00:00
How do you eat yours? Are you a no-nonsense muncher, a cautious nibbler, a creative breaker or a well-organised cutter who observes proper decorum and eats it with a knife and fork. Psychologists reckon the way we eat bananas says a lot about our personalities.

But a bunch of bananas already comes laden with historical, comical and cultural connotations. Arabian and Indian texts say the banana was the Tree of Paradise in the Garden of Eden. And last year archaeologists discovered a banana from around 1560, preserved in the silt of the Thames - 300 years before regular deliveries arrived by steamship in the 19th century.

The banana is a gigantic herb that can live to the ripe old age of 100; its trunk is made of layers of old leaves, from which emerges the stalk, bearing up to 150 fruits at a time. The yellow banana is a mutant version of the green plantain and, uniquely for a fruit, it is sterile and must be propagated from the suckers produced by its roots.

Football fans' inflatables and slapstick slip-ups have made the finger-shaped fruit a figure of fun, and in December 1946 the banana's sweet crescent put a smile on theface of every child in Britain when they were given one for Christmas - except in Evelyn Waugh's house, where the mean old curmudgeon famously ate his children's ration in front of them. It overtook the apple a few years ago to become top banana and the most valuable food product in supermarkets - we eat five billion of them each year. It is the fourth most important cash crop in the world behind behind rice, wheat and maize. The banana trade is a serious business. Toxic pesticides have caused infertility and birth defects among plantation workers, and some banana farmers earn less than pound;3 a day. Banana wars broke out in the early Nineties after European trade laws usurped traditional suppliers in the Caribbean in favour of the "dollar bananas" of Latin America.

It's perhaps surprising that such an unassuming yellow fruit can command such interest. But just consider what's inside it. High in carbohydrates, potassium and vitamins, low in protein and fat, and easily digestible, it's the ultimate energy food. Handily packaged in a biodegradable wrapper, it's the ideal convenience food. All in all, the complete meal in a peel.

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