08 December 2011

Pick a Fruit, Any Fruit

"I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say,
Bananas have to ripen in a certain way ..."

Those of us who grew up in the U.S. in the '50s and '60s can sing all or part of the Chiquita banana commercial jingle, one of the most successful of all time. When Miss Chiquita made her debut in 1944, bananas were considered an exotic tropical fruit. Americans had to be taught how to ripen and use them. But though the jingle is snappy, bananas were looked down on. After all, they came from banana republics, and I don't mean The Gap's sister stores. The banana republic of my youth was a pejorative term used for politically unstable countries whose sole export was bananas. Bananas eventually caught on in the States, but it was hard work for Chiquita's United Fruit Company. America was and will probably always remain basically an apple culture.

Apple pie à la mode......ummm
"A is for apple" is how we learned the first letter of the alphabet in kindergarten. I grew up eating a variety of apples, including McIntosh, red delicious, golden delicious, granny smith, russet, cranapple, and then, just to be sophisticated, gala and fuji. There were apple desserts galore, starting with the all-time favorite, apple pie. Beyond the pie, there were the crisps, crumbles, cookies, brown bettys, cobblers, pandowdys, cakes, charlottes and puddings. There was fruit compote, baked apples and applesauce. We ate apple scones, apple dumplings, caramel apples. And there was nothing like spreading apple butter on hot, just-out-of-the-oven bread.

We weren't totally banana-ignorant — or so we thought. We ate bananas, we even liked bananas. I knew all the words to the Banana Boat Song and sang right along with Harry Belafonte. But what a shock I had when I brought my first bunch of Brazilian bananas to the supermarket checkout counter and was asked by the young check-out girl, apparently new to the store, "Which kind are these, prata or agua? " I looked at her. If she couldn't tell the two apart, how was I to? I said, "I don't know ... aren't they just bananas?" Oh, what an innocent I was. I had no idea what I had just walked into. I was now in true banana country, home of Carmen Miranda and "Bananas is my Business."  Búzios itself used to be one huge banana plantation.

Bananas are discussed and argued about here the way wine grapes are discussed and argued about in France. There are five main categories of bananas: banana ouro, banana da terra, banana nanica, banana prata and banana maça, each divided into subcategories. I still have a hard time telling one from the other, so please don't ask. But at least now I know they exist. I know they're boiled, mashed, pureed and roasted. They're ground into flour, blended into drinks, they're baked and fried. Occasionally, they're eaten raw. And for dessert, they're made into cakes, pies, creams and puddings. And some of my Brazilian friends are categorical about which banana to use in which dish.  

When we have Brazilian friends over for dinner, I often make an apple crisp for dessert, straight out of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Apple desserts are still unusual here and it's fun to surprise people. Our guests, skeptical at first, invariably end up asking for the recipe. Recently, a good friend took my recipe and made it for her family. She called a few days later to share the results. She said it came out great. But as we kept talking she let slip that the baking time I gave her was a bit off, since hers took so much longer. I was surprised. I couldn't imagine why that would be. Took a bit of pushing and prodding until I wormed it out of her: she had substituted bananas for the apples. Old habits die hard.

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