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Bananas: An American History Paperback – August 17, 2000


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"A study of the banana at first may appear frivolous," writes Jenkins (The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession). But "the use of everyday food can offer a window into the culture of the United States." Drawing from an unusual assemblage of evidence, Jenkins (a scholar-in-residence at the Chesapeake Maritime Museum) argues that Americans' ideas about the fruitAhow to store it, how to cook it, what it's good forAwere invented, over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, by advertisers and growers. And their campaigns worked like a charm: before 1880, most Americans hadn't even seen a banana; by 1910, they were consuming vast quantities of the fruit. How did this happen? Introduced to wealthy Americans in the second half of the 19th century as a delicacy, Jenkins argues, the banana was quickly seized upon by businessmen who understood that they could make a huge profit importing fruit. So they built large banana plantations in Central America and the Caribbean; soon, they had gained economic and political power in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Mexico. Protected by American troops, U.S. corporations like United Fruit helped set up puppet dictatorships in countries wherever they had plantations (hence the term "banana republic"). Jenkins capably takes readers through this history, then describes how American businesses orchestrated popular demand for the fruitAby keeping the price low and waging a relentless advertising campaign that promoted the banana as delicious and healthful, either raw or cooked. Although the book includes a wealth of trivia on banana jokes, songs and recipes, it is really Jenkins's historical overview of the banana's production, marketing and transporting that makes this book a strong contribution to the growing field of food studies. B&w photos. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Bananas is the latest in a line of social histories of different foodstuffs. Jenkins, a scholar-in-residence at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and author of The Lawn: An American Obsession, discusses the influence of bananas on American foreign policy, humor, and popular music (from Carmen Miranda to the Chiquita Banana Song). She does bring up some interesting points, e.g., that American banana companies were responsible for much of the infrastructure built in Central America and that the Banana Festival in Fulton, KY, was actually a weapon against communism. But Jenkins's study bogs down when she discusses the marketing strategies of the banana companies. Comprising the bulk of the book, this repetitious discussion makes more of the material than is warranted. If your library includes Mark Kurlansky's Cod (LJ 7/97), Betty Fussell's The Story of Corn (LJ 7/92), and Larry Zuckerman's Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World (Faber & Faber, 1998), this might be a worthy complement; otherwise, it is not essential.DTom Vincent, P.L. of Charlotte & Mecklenburg Cty., NC
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 210 pages
  • Publisher: Smithsonian Books (August 17, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1560989661
  • ISBN-13: 978-1560989660
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,386,165 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Mary P. Campbell on August 25, 2001
Format: Paperback
Who would have thought there was so much to say about the modern
love affair between America and bananas? I should have known it,
though, for at Mathcamp the staff had entire wars based on bananas and
the pilfering thereof. We snuck extras out of the cafeteria, hid them
in refrigerators, even wrote our names on the peels in a feeble
attempt to secure a personal, steady supply. Alas, it was not to
be. How did this miracle fruit go from being an exotic food iteam for
the rich to the universal snack? Jenkins tells us how, in this very
thoroughly researched book. Pretty much anything you want to know
about bananas in the 20th century is here: medical attitudes, recipes,
social status, trade wars, banana jokes ("I'm sorry, I can't hear
you -- I've got a banana in my ear.") - you name it, it's in
here, which is surprising for such a relatively trim book. She's got a
slew of references in the back, should you ever wish to check her
sources; for the less academic of us, there's also an extensive list
of banana songs.
Bananas are such a workaday fruit, we
forget how important they have been in reflecting society. With each
new medical fad, bananas reinvent themselves as a perfect food; during
the period where dirty fruit was a concern, the thick peel of the
banana was a boon; when vitamins, minerals, and proteins were seen as
important, bananas were found to have such things in abundance; when
high-calories and high-fat were a concern, bananas were found to be an
energy-full, low-fat snack.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By V. Phin on September 9, 2003
Format: Paperback
For those fascinated with bananas, this book offers an insight into the toothsome tropical tube. Aside from some cautions which I will discuss further on, the book is full of useful and little-known information, like the coinage of the term "Banana Republic"; the histories of two large companies, Chiquita and Dole; and the change in ideas concerning the banana, from tropical delicacy to poor-man's fruit. Sadly, as this is a history of the banana in America, there is little written as to its origins in Asia and its earlier uses. Consider Bananas the story of how an inported fruit became a symbol of the United States.
I had some complaints about the book, however. The author put the chapters together like essays: each one does not have to be read before the other, as a lot of the information is repeated to illustrate a slightly different example in other contexts. This approach lends tedious reading; I could not help but think the book could be much shorter than its tight 171 pages. Moreover, some of the research is obviously low-key: she mentions banana-flavoured ice cream in stores today, but only makes use of her local groceries (Safeway & Giant) as examples. It leads me to wonder what else is written in her book as a general fact based on a small sample. The author also spends much of the text quoting verbatim recipes, sayings, and articles that are either unnecessary or redundant.
Nevertheless, for those interested in the study of food, this book is not to be passed over, despite my rating of two stars of five. There are a few gems-- especially in the first few chapters-- that are of definite interest.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 7, 2000
Format: Paperback
An entertaining work - a complete history of the banana in American culture. How they were introduced, how and where they are grown and shipped, how we've eaten them through history, and how we have celebrated their contribution to the American diet...an engaging and fun social and political history of the most popular fruit in America (yep, we collectively eat more bananas than apples.) Reading the book made me want to eat more bananas! And, I have. I wish it had included a few recipes, even some historic ones.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on February 13, 2001
Format: Paperback
Bananas were unknown to United States residents until the late 1800s, but today are a well-known staple. This provides a history of the banana in America, from its initial arrival and popularization process to the natural history of bananas . From politics to buying and selling bananas, Virginia Jenkins' Bananas peppers black and white illustrations and photos with plenty of facts to appeal to both general and specialty audiences.
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