Nutritive Qualities of the Banana
A number of prizes have lately been awarded for the best essays on the nutritive qualities of the banana. The writers of the prize essays were given £100 each. What interested me most in the report of the competition, however, was the announcement that a Jewish schoolboy from the East End of London sent in an essay 13,000 words long, for which he was given a consolation prize of half a guinea. This surely deserves to be placed on record as a unique feat of competition. Most of us would find it difficult to write even the briefest essay on such a subject as the nutritive qualities of the banana. A broomstick itself seems a subject richer in possibilities for the essayist. If you write an essay on a broomstick you need not mention the broomstick. But, if you write an essay on the nutritive qualities of the banana you cannot very well avoid devoting a part of the essay to the nutritive qualities of the banana. Your title suggests, not fancy, but fact—not divagation, but information. And how little information could you or I fish out of the depths of our minds on that particular subject!
The banana “is one of the principal courses of food in tropical countries”, and that “its productive powers are prodigious; per imperial acre, it was estimated by Humboldt to produce 44 times more by weight than the potato, and 133 more than wheat”. He would learn that the average weight of a bunch of bananas is about 25 lbs. He would learn that in the tropics even unripe bananas are boiled and eaten as vegetables. He would learn that flour is manufactured from bananas in South America, and that the fruit yields a “wholesome” wine. He would discover that “all parts of the plant abound in fibre which is believed to be well adapted to the manufacture of cordage and paper”, and that “the inhabitants of Dacca make from it the string of the bow with which they tease cotton”. Even cloth is made from it in some of the islands of the Indian Ocean. All this is interesting, as is the fact that the banana plant, while having all the appearance of a tree, is really a herb. But it does not explain why we in these Western parts of Europe should turn to the banana in search of nutrition.
I am convinced that the banana owes its comparative popularity among us, not to any good qualities it possesses, but to certain bad qualities of ourselves. It is the lazy man’s fruit all the world over. Nature planted it abundantly in those parts of the earth in which it is impossible not to be lazy; and, if you see any one eating a banana at an English table, you may generally be sure that he is one of the laziest persons in the company. We eat bananas, not because we like them, but because they give us less trouble than any other fruit. One has to peel an apple or a pear carefully, but the banana almost peels itself. In grapes there are pips and skins to be got rid of, an endless inconvenience; but after the first stripping of the banana there is not further labour. A date has to be cut open and stoned. An orange contains all sorts of inedible matter, and no quite decent way of eating it in public has yet been discovered. Even the strawberry, which is the easiest of European fruits to eat, has the disadvantage of having been touched by hands other than the eater’s. The banana, on the other hand, is free from nearly all the objections that can be taken to a fruit, except on the score of its taste. It is clean; it has neither pips nor core; it has a skin that comes off as easily as an overcoat; it can be eaten, if necessary without the aid of a knife; and not even a child has ever been known to eat it to excess. It may not have a single positive good quality; but it has all the negative good qualities. That is why it would be almost impossible to introduce it into a lyrical poem. The church bells may chime the praises of oranges and lemons, but not of bananas.
The literature of the banana, indeed, never rises above the level of low comedy. Compare the literature of the vine the the literature of the banana, and you will see at once the gulf that divides them. The apple appears in beautiful legend after beautiful legend and the pear in nursery rhymes. Cherries are poets’ fruits, and Browning brought even the melon into poetry. But, apart from “Have a banana” and “Yes, we have no bananas”, the banana, I fancy, has not a single association with literature. Most of the fruits that come from the South and the sunshine bring to our imaginations the warmth of the South and the sunshine. A box of Persian dates takes us on a voyage to the East, and a cargo of oranges is a cargo of romance; but a bunch of bananas might as well have been grown in a London suburb for all the interest it has for us. All other fruits bring beauty before us, and, when we say “plum-coloured”, “peach-coloured”, “apple-green”, “orange”, we are expressing pleasure. But no one ever used “banana-coloured” as an adjective of praise. Even painters of still life, most easily pleased of men, ignore the banana. It is the plainest and least charming of the fruits. I am not sure that those native races are not right who boil it and eat it as a vegetable. It certainly looks like a vegetable and does not taste unlike one.
There may, it is true, be something to be said for the banana in the countries in which it is grown. Travellers declare that the banana that is to be obtained in a London fruit-shop is widely different in flavour from the banana that is eaten in its natural surroundings. They even use the word “delicious”, and there is no need to disbelieve them. I doubt, however, whether the adjective “delicious” has ever been seriously applied to the English banana. If any one attempts to describe its flavour, it is usually by comparing it to cotton-wool or blotting-paper. The nearest thing to praise of the banana that I ever heard spoken was the statement that bananas with snub noses have a better flavour than bananas with pointed ones. That, it must be admitted, is but a mild essay at praise. There is not rapture in it, such as we expect when human beings speak of food that they like. I trust that the schoolboy who wrote the 13,000-word essay found something more delirious than this to say in appreciation of bananas.
Yet, even with the prospect of a prize of a hundred pounds, what more could one say? I suspect the schoolboy of having, as we say, written round the subject and, when he approached it, concentrated on the useful rather than the beautiful qualities of the banana. It is, I imagine, possible to praise the banana, if you think of it exclusively in terms of food-values. Scientific men discover by ways that we ordinary people cannot understand, and that we have no means of checking, that this or that fruit contains such and such a percentage of calories, and that it is rich or poor in vitamin A or B or C. There are books on diet containing tables that give the constituents of every fruit, and you and I more or less believe them. By means of this kind it may be possible to make out a case even for the banana. You will, it is safe to prophesy, find that it contains a great deal of both starch and sugar. That means that bananas will be good for you unless you are one of the people for whom starch and sugar are not good. And whether they are good for you or not you cannot tell without going to a doctor, and you have to take his word for it. I doubt, however, whether even a doctor can be found to say that bananas are positively good for you. I have heard of doctors recommending the grape-cure, the lemon-cure, the orange-cure, the pineapple-chunk-cure and the raising-cure; but, if the banana-cure has ever been advocated, it has escaped my notice. The banana, in medicine as well as on the table, is probably not bad rather than good. It will prevent of cure at least one thing—starvation. Nebuchadnezzar would almost certainly have preferred it to grass. Who else but Nebuchadnezzar could have agreed with the botanist who named the plant Musa sapientium, and who went so far as to call the very plantain Musa paradisiaca? Not for a hundred pounds would I endorse such exaggerations. And if I did, I could not do it to the extent of 13,000 words. I fancy the schoolboy must have incorporated a history and description of Jamaica or the Canary Islands in his essay. Even so, what a feat in an essay called “The Nutritive Qualities of the Banana”! What a fruit, and what a subject! And, at the end of it all, a cheque for half a guinea!