Has any other instrument of globalization ever been so tasty? First domesticated in Asia, full of fiber and contained in its own biodegradable packaging, the lowly banana was already being imported to the U.S. in quantities exceeding four billion a year in 1913. But it would still be a rare treat, if not for a railroad magnate and a small-time spice importer who pushed bananas to the East Coast masses. Dan Koeppel's Banana: The Fate Of The Fruit That Changed The World is the fruit's proper biography; Peter Chapman's Bananas!: How The United Fruit Company Shaped The World, on the other hand, focuses on a once-famous company's former banana monopoly.
Koeppel's book begins with the birth of the domesticated banana, from Asia to Central America, where the Gros Michel cultivar took hold as a cash crop. Desperate to protect its newly discovered bounty, United Fruit burned through several populations of cheap labor, lowered and raised prices to drive out competitors, and beat a hasty retreat from ruined fields. These practices followed, and in some cases even guided, American policy in the region, as in Nixon's use of the United Fruit-driven revolution in Guatemala to draw up blueprints for what became the Bay Of Pigs disaster. More pressing for Koeppel's narrative, ranging as it does from botany to bribery and beyond, are the diseases that, unchecked by United Fruit, snuffed out the Gros Michel and are threatening today's most popular banana, the Cavendish; because banana plants are replanted from cuttings, and lack the cross-pollinating that strengthens wild varieties, crops are highly vulnerable to disease.
Both authors have room for zany digressions: Koeppel explores the sociological origins of the Tin Pan Alley hit "Yes, We Have No Bananas," while Chapman discusses the hippie subculture that produced The Velvet Underground's famous banana-peel cover. Bananas! has an affect of cumulative outrage, as the dirty acts associated with mega-corporations pile up even before the etymology of the term "banana republic" is introduced. Koeppel is more thoughtful and meandering in tracing the banana and various varieties, including lab visits to the fruits of the future, though Chapman, who wrote his undergraduate thesis on the banana business, has the reporting advantage of several years' interviews. Chapman's tale of skullduggery is a page-turner, but because of generations of copycat corporate malfeasance, it's all a familiar story; Koeppel offers a more encyclopedic take on the fruit, but also offers hope for the fruit that Bananas! is prepared to abandon as the wages of human greed.