Don’t worry; this has happened before.
For the first half of the twentieth century, Americans were eating a different banana: the Gros Michel (“Fat Mike,” to his friends). Native to Southeast Asia, Gros Michel bananas were grown on massive plantations in Honduras, Costa Rica, and elsewhere in Central America. But by the 1950s, fungal-induced Panama disease had ravaged production, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of banana plants. The Gros Michel was replaced on Central American plantations and in U.S. grocery stores by the Cavendish, a banana resistant to the the strain of Panama disease that had wreaked havoc on its predecessor.
Since commercial bananas are seedless, and thus grown by cloning, the story is repeating itself. Intensive monoculture and the interconnectedness of global trade further assures the spread of pathogens, wrecking crops and devastating local banana economies. In the end, fungus always wins.
You may have heard the persistent rumor that, banana to banana, the Gros Michel bested the Cavendish in every way. According to the some somber assessments, the Cavendish is blander, needs “artificial” ripening, and is altogether more buttoned-up and tucked-in than the wilder, fruitier Fat Mike. You might also have read that if you want a hint of what the Gros Michel tasted like, try a banana Laffy Taffy, or those tiny yellow banana-shaped candies, or any cheap banana-flavored thing. Fake banana flavor, the legend goes, is based on the Gros Michel.
But was “fake banana” flavor really “based” on the Gros Michel? Was the Gros Michel actually a better banana? Is the fake inevitably an attenuation of the real? What is “real” banana flavor, anyways?
And could it even be possible that fake banana flavor came before real bananas?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s begin with the bananas.
Until the closing decades of the nineteenth century, bananas were quite rare in the United States. Most Americans wouldn’t get a taste of bananas until the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, where over ten million people got the chance to try the fruit, wrapped in foil and sold for a dime. And while multiple varieties of bananas were initially available in U.S. markets, by the 1890s, the Gros Michel reigned supreme.
There are many reasons that the Gros Michel became the top banana. Superior taste was by no means the main factor. Basically, Gros Michel bananas were born to be shipped: they were thick-skinned, resistant to bruising, and grew in tight and symmetrical bunches that were perfect for tossing straight into a ship’s cargo hold. By the 1890s, Gros Michel bananas were widely sold in the U.S. by grocers and from city pushcarts, and had become “the variety around which late nineteenth-century consumer markets formed their notions about just what constituted a ‘banana,'” according to historian John Soluri. That is, until Cavendish bananas supplanted them in supermarkets from the late ’50s through the early ’60s.
But how about banana flavor?
Here’s where this story gets a twist. Knowing that bananas were uncommon in the U.S. until the late 1870s, I was surprised to find “banana” included among other flavors of “fruit essences” (i.e., artificial fruit flavors) in American newspaper advertisements from as early as 1853. Digging deeper, I found traces of artificial banana flavor at the Crystal Palace exhibition of global technological wonders in New York, which opened in 1853. According to Scientific American, the most popular imitation essences at the exhibition were banana and pineapple.
What exactly was in artificial “banana essence”? The earliest formula I’ve found dates to 1860, from an important American chemistry textbook, which describes banana essence as “equal parts amylic alcohol and oil of vitriol” distilled with acetate of potash.
Isoamyl acetate—produced from fusel oil, a waste product of alcohol distilling—was one of the very first synthetic chemicals used in artificial flavorings. It’s has a sweet, fruity odor, and was used in pear, strawberry, and raspberry flavorings. You may recognize it, actually, from banana Laffy Taffys or those orange marshmallow “circus peanuts.” (That’s right. The same synthetic chemical that was used in artificial banana flavors in the 1850s is still used for that purpose today.)
The connection between amyl acetate—whose manifold uses besides artificial flavors include paint thinner and varnish remover—and banana flavor is so strong that it is often listed in American chemical catalogs as “banana oil.” Incidentally, “banana oil” was also 1920s slang for “bullshit,” a term of art popularized in the work of the great cartoonist Milt Gross.
So is amyl acetate just bullshit banana? Well, not exactly. In 1912, when Dr. Clemens Kleber, a head chemist for the flavor and fragrance firm Fritzsche Brothers, set out to determine which chemicals in bananas were responsible for their flavor, the bananas that he used in his New Jersey research laboratory were most likely Gros Michel. After ripening, mashing, distilling, and variously analyzing his banana mush, Dr. Kleber managed to isolate a quantity of an oily, odorous, neutral liquid, which he identified as amyl acetate. In other words, Dr. Kleber showed that the chemical that had been widely used for more than half a century in imitation banana flavorings was also present in genuine bananas.
So what arrived first to the American palate, artificial banana flavor or actual bananas? The historical evidence suggests that amyl acetate-based artificial banana flavor was popular before Gros Michel bananas became widely available. Many Americans may have first experienced “banana” as an artificial flavor, which was added to impart a novel kind of fruitiness to the expanding variety of sweet treats (candies, ice creams, sodas) that comprised an ever-growing portion of the American diet. Perhaps the presence of banana flavors in confections, beverages, and candies conditioned Americans to expect certain sensory qualities when it came to the taste of bananas, and thus familiarized them with certain aspects of banana flavor that they were then able to find and confirm in the Gros Michel.
Of course, perception is always selective: the sensations we attend to and the meanings we attach to them are shaped by our histories and the contexts in which we live. Dozens of chemicals contribute to the flavor of bananas, whether Gros Michel, Cavendish, or any of the hundreds of other banana varietals—green, blue, red, pink, and yellow. We learn to attend to certain sensations in the multisensory complexity of flavor, and to mark those as the significant ones—to recognize and know the flavor of banana in amyl acetate, and vice versa.
When making a banana flavor today, flavor chemists have access not only to a more exhaustive literature of the multiple chemicals that contribute to the flavor of bananas, but also to a far wider range of synthetic chemicals. But a “better” banana flavor is not always one that’s more “real.” Instead, flavorists build situational bananas, tailored to the food the flavor will be used in, the requirements of the market, and expectations and desires of consumers—also perhaps to something else, a different note, a new sensory idea.
I’ll end here by invoking one final role played by the banana in the early twentieth century. Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan’s fruit fly lab at Columbia University is a crucial site in the history of science, the place where, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the foundations of modern genetics were laid.
In Morgan’s lab, the fruit fly, cheap, brief, and prolific, was made into a “living instrument” to sustain the argument, provide the proof, of the connection between genes and traits, the chromosome theory of heredity.
And what sustained Morgan’s flies at the beginning of his study? Bananas. Cheap, abundant, always available, bananas were the model food for the first model organism, the insect whose cells would be used to map out the patterns of genes, at the moment when genes first seemed to be the stuff that makes our selves.
Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana—and apparently, so do we.