Amuse Bouche: ‘Yes! We have no bananas!’
By Scott Mechura EBS Columnist
As Louis Prima once sang, “we have no bananas.” Or at least as we once knew them.
For decades, multiple generations on my mother’s side of the family would leave us with a lighthearted parting phrase: Eat your bananas and drink your milk. As children, we of course had our fun with this and transposed it to “drink your bananas and eat your milk.” Such clever children we were.
Botanically, bananas are the largest perennial herb on earth. The more-than 1,000 current species of bananas worldwide derive from two original species, each with three sets of triple chromosomes.
Similar to apples, most banana species today are sterile so they require humans to cultivate them. One species in particular, the Gros Michel, or “Big Mike”, is the source of what we all know as the banana flavor. But due to a wilt known as Panama Disease, almost every last Gros Michel was wiped out in the 1950s. And as we fought back and cultivated more and more species that were resistant to Panama Disease, it turned out to be a pyric victory. We saved the banana but we lost all its flavor.
In other words, the bananas our grandparents ate tasted nothing like what we eat today.
Even some variants of some German wheat beer yeasts exhibit more true banana aromas than bananas themselves.
And have you ever noticed how artificially flavored things such as popsicles or candy have that strong banana flavor that you can’t seem to get in even the ripest of bananas? Well, you aren’t crazy. This banana flavor is still a derivative of the Gros Michel.
Despite this loss of flavor, bananas are the most popular fruit in thew world. They are regularly consumed on six continents and available year-round. But again, this comes with another cost.
As far back as my adolescent years, I remember hearing about the decimation of the rain forests. Studies and articles continue to blow the whistle on the harmful environmental and social impacts of cultivating bananas on a mass scale. These monocultures are huge resource sucks, some of the biggest growers are also use some of the most agrochemicals of any industry and producers are often the target of unfair trading practice and poor working conditions claims.
Since I like to question most everything, my question here is this: Do we even need bananas? Couldn’t we just live without them?
If we go down a quick checklist: They decimate our rain forests. They’ve retained little to none of their original flavor. Every vitamin contained within that yellow skin can be found in many other fruits and vegetables.
As a chef, I can’t think of a time when I felt compelled to include a banana or banana flavor or texture in a dessert. Let’s be honest, bananas just don’t have that wow of a vine-ripe heirloom tomato or a perfectly ripe Cara Cara orange.
If I’m craving that banana flavor, my best bet is not to head to the grocery store, but to hope the ice cream truck comes down my street on a hot, sunny summer night.
Scott Mechura has spent his life in the hospitality industry and is also a former certified beer judge.