There are more than a thousand banana species in the world, but you've probably only ever tasted one. The Cavendish banana is the one we know and love. It's the one the international banana economy is based on—the only species that's exported from one country to another, anywhere in the world. But its extinction is coming.
That's because we've bred the Cavendish to be seedless. No hard black seeds in our delicious banana flesh means banana trees only reproduce asexually, with human intervention. So all Cavendish palms are genetically nearly identical, making them highly susceptible to disease. The Panama Disease Race Four fungus attacks the roots, leaves, and vascular system of banana trees. As it mutates it becomes a more and more efficient killer. The Cavendish banana, meanwhile, is a genetic sitting duck. Sometime in the next decade (scientists have no way to predict the exact timing), experts say, the fungus will become perfectly evolved to attack the Cavendish, and will quickly spread to wipe out the banana stock worldwide. All this happened once before—the banana the whole world once knew was a different and by all accounts bigger and tastier species. Over the course of several decades, a previous strain of the fungus attacked and wiped it out, and with it the worldwide banana industry, before the Cavendish came along in the 1960s to resurrect it.
This is one of several stories told over the course of Fruit Hunters, a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang that screened this past weekend at Miami's Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and is available now for streaming and download. The film focuses on Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell, two researchers who travel the world collecting exotic fruit species for preservation and cultivation, and on actor Bill Pullman's quest to turn an empty piece of land in the Hollywood Hills into a fruit orchard. Pullman, it turns out, is also an exotic fruit aficionado, and has more than a hundred species of fruiting plants on his property in Hollywood.
The film pits the relative monoculture of the supermarket—the few species we encounter regularly that are bred more for ease of shipping, storage, and consistency than for flavor—against the wild diversity and intensity of fruits in nature.
We follow Ledesma and Campbell on a trip to Indonesia in search of the elusive Wani Mango. They attend a resplendent Balinese fruit harvest ceremony, then scour fruit markets for the Wani. After a long negotiation, they're able to convince the locals to take them into the rainforest, where they find the elusive tree. They must take a cutting from the top of the canopy, which will have the best chance of thriving when grafted onto a branch back at Fairchild Tropical Garden, where they are curators of rare fruit.
Along the way the film introduces us to Isabella Dalla Ragione, an Italian fruit researcher visiting monasteries in search of mysterious fruit species depicted in Renaissance frescoes. It tells the story of John McIntosh, who followed the love of his life from New York to Canada only to discover that she had died before they could be reunited. Growing next to her grave was a tree with the most delicious apples he'd ever tasted—they became the McIntosh apple. And we meet Yang Yuhuan, the favored consort of an ancient Chinese emperor. Yang was obsessed with lychees, and the emperor spent vast amounts of effort and money acquiring them for her, contributing to the downfall of the Tang Dynasty.
There's an inherent difficulty in creating a movie about a subject matter where taste and smell are so central. (Insert old saw regarding dancing about architecture.) Chang plays this up by giving us several scenes of Pullman and others tasting various fruits and reacting to them. But he also takes every opportunity to play up the visual sensuousness of the fruit, allowing the camera to just linger on close-ups: the white pillowy interior flesh of the purple mangosteen, the scaly reptilian exterior of the asam paya, the beaklike berries of tampoi belimbing, and the caviar-like interior of the finger lime. It works because of how central the images are to the film's theme: that the offerings in our supermarket's produce section are but an impoverished subset of the offerings of nature, bred for the convenience of the food industry and depriving us the possibilities of wild sensory pleasure that are as old as the human animal. (The film speculates that "in a forest of green, fruit helped us evolve to see the color red.")
I was compelled after seeing it to seek out new and exciting fruit, and was quickly met with disappointment at my local market, where I had to settle for delicious but familiar mangos and peaches. The screening at Fairchild included a tropical fruit tasting, including samples of dragonfruit, sapote, and jackfruit. I have to report that the flavors of these exotics deliver on the promises the movie makes—I want these flavors in my life.
It's yet another pointer towards the world we lost as food production became industrialized: variety, regional and seasonal variation, and the bold flavors of untampered nature. And it's a reminder that it's all still out there for us. We can seek out unique green markets in our neighborhoods and our travels, we can plant our own fruiting trees, and we can demand our supermarkets to broaden their palates.