There are a lot of foods with storied pasts, bearing shortages, controversies and generally lots to talk about. On the other hand, it doesn't seem like there should be all that much to say about the humble banana.

For starters, bananas are categorically complex, having characteristics of being a fruit, but also having characteristics that make them something else. They don't technically grow on trees, but on herbs, because the core of the trunk is not woody.

The plant itself is related to the ginger plant and the wild fruit, which was bulbous and full of large, hard seeds, which taxonomically matched the definition of a "berry."

The parts of a banana plant. Illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
The parts of a banana plant. Illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Scientists have tracked bananas back 10,000 years to the region of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and New Guinea. According to the Australian Banana Growers Council, the banana may have been the first fruit on the planet.

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Of course, we've made changes. Most noteworthy, we've made them harder to categorize by cultivating them to the point of being seedless. Hence, some consider them not to be fruit at all. All of the bananas we grow today are propagated by other means, which some claim puts the humble banana at risk of eventual extinction.

Since the early 20th century the banana has been the most popular fruit in the United States, largely owing to its affordability and dependability. Today's Cavendish bananas are cheap and predictable, but they didn't start that way.

Andrew Preston and Minor Cooper Keith are responsible for first importing Gros Michel bananas under the Boston Fruit Company (now Chiquita). They were the first to undertake the bold task of importing exotic fruits, including bananas. To make it work, they cleared land in Jamaica to build plantations to provide their bananas. They also had to build ice cooled warehouses, boxcars and ships.

Their company and others that imported bananas were responsible for the phrase "banana republics" because they built their businesses on agreements with authoritarian governments in the tropics. Even with these businesses in operation (and often operating in morally questionable ways) the banana supply has been a rocky one. There are even songs about it!

The banana industry between World War I and World War II was growing. What was at once an expensive fruit to import was becoming more accessible due to the availability of cold shipment methods. The price of importing bananas was making it more available to the middle class as well as other businesses.

Costa Rican banana plantation showing a traditional big house and small worker's quarters. Ca. 1910. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Costa Rican banana plantation showing a traditional big house and small worker's quarters. Ca. 1910. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

In 1923, songwriters Frank Silvan and Irving Cohn wrote the song, "Yes, we have no bananas," inspired by a Greek fruit seller on Long Island who began every sentence with, "Yes," even in this case where he was lacking in something like bananas.

Around this time there was a global crash in the banana crop caused by the emergence of Panama disease, a fungus that still threatens crops globally. Panama disease caused shortages globally and is credited with making some of the most popular banana cultivars go extinct, causing a shift to the Cavendish banana.

The supply must have bounced back by 1930, however, because it was then that James Alexander Dewar was trying to figure out a filling for his bakery's strawberry shortcakes when berries were out of season. He decided that banana cream filling would do quite well, and thus invented the Twinkie. "The Twinkie," you say. "But they aren't filled with banana!" To which I say, "Not anymore."

The banana woes were not yet done. World War II was on the horizon and the war effort demanded the use of every ship with refrigerated storage. Shipment of bananas ground to a halt with the start of the war, resulting in the switch to a vanilla cream filling in Twinkies.

The shortage of bananas was worse in Great Britain. Not only did they need all refrigerated cargo ships, the Germans were cutting off imports. The British minister for food banned banana imports in 1940. Musician Harry Roy wrote, "When Can I Have a Banana Again?" in response.

Those who just couldn't go without the now favored tropical treat flavored parsnips with banana extract. A BBC archive of a story by Joan Stokoe suggests that, yes, these were as gross as they sound.

Ice cream made from pulsed or blended frozen banana. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Ice cream made from pulsed or blended frozen banana. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Banana Ice Cream

  • 1 large, ripe banana (or more depending on the size of your processor)

Peel a sweet, soft banana and chop it into small pieces. Place the pieces in an airtight freezer safe bowl or freezer bag for at least two hours until solid. Pulse the banana pieces in a food processor or powerful blender. As it is blended the banana will first look crumbly, then gooey, then like oatmeal and then will take on an ice cream like texture.

At this point you can also mix in items like peanut butter or chocolate chips. Transfer to another air-tight container and freeze until solid.

Freshly baked classic banana bread with walnuts and bananas. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Freshly baked classic banana bread with walnuts and bananas. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Mom's Classic Banana Bread

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup soft butter
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 overripe bananas, mashed
  • 1/2 cup nuts or chocolate chips, optional

Mix the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the eggs, followed by dry ingredients and bananas.

Bake the bread in a greased loaf pan at 325 degrees for an hour or until a toothpick inserted in the thickest part comes out clean.

Raw, vegan, avocado, banana, chocolate pudding. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Raw, vegan, avocado, banana, chocolate pudding. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Raw Chocolate Pudding

Recipe by Marshasbakingaddiction.com

  • 1 avocado, cored, peeled and chopped
  • 2 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup (or more to taste)
  • Pinch of salt

Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth. To make it even smoother, press the resulting mixture through a fine mesh sieve to remove additional lumps. Serve.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.