The Life Cycle of a Banana

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Over on Edible Geography, Nicola Twilley has a fantastic long-form piece tracing the painstaking production that is the life cycle of bananas as they make their way from tropical Ecuador to your fruit bowl. This reminded me of a fascinating vintage documentary from the end of the silent film era I'd come across some time ago. The 11-minute black-and-white film, currently in the public domain courtesy of the Prelinger Archives, was produced in 1935 and zooms in on the banana industry, from virgin jungle being converted into banana plantations to the 15-month growth cycle between root planting and banana bunch to the shipment of the fruit into the American markets, and even ends with a stop-motion visual jingle about the health virtues of bananas.

Bananas are more than a delicious fruit -- they are one of America's most important foods....

Now, contrast that -- the manual farming and inspection, the pick-up locomotives, the "specially constructed ships of the Great White Fleet" -- with today's sophisticated banana-ripening facilities and their "evolving architecture of atmospheric control."

In other words, in order to be a global commodity rather than a tropical treat, the banana has to be harvested and transported while completely unripe. Bananas are cut while green, hard, and immature, washed in cool water (both to begin removing field heat and to stop them from leaking their natural latex), and then held at 56 degrees -- originally in a refrigerated steamship; today, in a refrigerated container -- until they reach their country of consumption weeks later.

And in observing how far we've come technologically, it's bittersweet -- like a green banana, perhaps -- to observe how much further we've gone from the groves.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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