The Secret Life of the City Banana

  • bananas
  • 06/08/2017
The Secret Life of the City Banana
Banana boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling, and a medical-looking device stuck out from one, trailing a cord. A pulp thermometer, he said.

The ripening rooms are filled with ethylene, a synthetic version of the hormone that naturally sets off ripening.

The thermometer tracks the bananas internal temperature, or its pulp level, which tells the ripeners how to adjust the ethylene, humidity and temperature in the room.

This art of ripening took time to perfect. And there were some accidents along the way. Ethylene is combustible, and in 1936, the Pittsburgh Banana Company building exploded, causing it to rain bananas in the citys Strip District.

Today ripening can be slowed or sped up by tapping a touch-screen. If sales are up, we increase the temperature, Mr. Serafino said. If sales are down, we decrease the temperature. The range was three degrees up or down, he said.

You dont want to stress the bananas.

The ripening rooms are kept between 56 and 66 degrees. Too cool, and the bananas get chilled, turning gray and bark-like, he said. Too warm, and though they might look fine, they would be mushy inside.

The process takes about four days. When it is done, the Serafinos deliver ripe bananas to restaurant suppliers, wholesalers and grocery stores. To make sure everyone is on the same page, they refer to a ripeness chart, where shades of ripeness are numbered from one to seven one being flag-of-Brazil green and seven a buttery yellow, with brown spots. No one buys sevens. If Ive got a bunch of sevens, the elder Mr. Serafino said, Im not sleeping.

It was perhaps to sell ripe bananas that United Fruit Company had Miss Chiquita sing in the 1940s and 1950s: When bananas are flecked with brown and have a golden hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you.

The jingle seems to have influenced a generation. I like to eat it just yellow, said Emil Serafino, 61.

But times have changed. His son Anthony Serafino, 25, said, I like them yellow with a green stem.

That, he said, was the Millennial Banana.

From the time bananas began to be imported to the East Coast in the late 19th century, they were in high demand. Along with pineapples, they were particularly popular when local fruit was out of season. They came off ships in giant bunches, still on the stalk, and thousands sold within hours.

They were so plentiful that in some cities, peels became a hazard. Yes, seriously. People fell and were injured. At least one man actually died from slipping on a banana peel. A headline in The New York Times in 1896 declared a War on the Banana Skin.

It wasnt just peels. Parts of Manhattan were covered in a thick layer of sludge: orange rinds, potato peels, hay, manure. But calls for action often focused on the danger of banana peels.

This went on for years.

In 1889, a Times reporter described a tall, heavyset man who had started briskly across the street only to plant his foot on a mound of banana skins and black muck, which slid like soft soap from under him.

That period, of course, is the origin of the gag, said Dan Koeppel, the author of the popular history Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. (Mr. Koeppel is now employed at The Wirecutter, a product-review site owned by The New York Times Company.)

New Yorks first street-sweeping operation helped clean up the streets, but the notion of slipping on a banana peel made its way into American culture, Mr. Koeppel said, thanks to Yiddish theater, Vaudeville and, eventually, silent films.

Banana peels also captured the imagination of local con artists. In 1910, according to The Times, one woman, Anna H. Sturla, was arrested after claiming she had slipped on a banana peel for the 17th time in four years.

For a while, a variety of bananas were available in New York City. There were dwarf bananas, and red ones from Cuba. As the United Fruit Company (which later became Chiquita) monopolized the industry and expanded throughout Latin America, one variety took over: the Gros Michel.

United Fruit was a ruthless corporate empire, but it was also vulnerable. Wherever the company went, it was pursued by Panama Disease, which causes banana trees to rot from the inside, and which it unwittingly spread in the soil that stuck to its tools. By 1960, the pathogen had all but destroyed the banana crop. The Gros Michel was rendered commercially extinct, said Mr. Koeppel, the banana historian.

The breed chosen by the industry to replace it, the Cavendish, was resistant to that particular strain of Panama Disease, but it wasnt as sturdy as the Gros Michel. It transformed the industry into the one we know today, Mr. Koeppel said, requiring boxes, refrigeration and advanced ripening technology.

Today, almost all export bananas in the world are Cavendish. Chosen more for its disease resistance, it is not necessarily the most flavorful variety, according to Mr. Koeppel. He called it the McDonalds of bananas. In India, where there are hundreds of banana breeds, the Cavendish is known as the hotel banana.

Once the bananas had ripened in New Jersey, they were loaded into trucks again. Some went to Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, where they were unloaded at Top Banana.

The Hunts Point market is a vast distribution center where trucks line up at warehouses a quarter-mile long.

In Area D, Top Bananas owner, Joe Palumbo, sat at a large desk on a recent afternoon. Around him were dozens of framed photos of his five children, some Mets paraphernalia and little pyramids of fresh bananas. Top Banana has its own ripening rooms, and the too-sweet smell of ripe bananas was inescapable.
  
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