Fruit of the Old Wise Men

Here’s a riddle for you. Which fruit will you most likely eat 28 pounds of this year? I’ll give you a hint: It splits quite nicely under some ice cream. 

Once considered a luxury, the banana became a common fixture in American grocery stores and restaurants in the early 1900s, thanks in large part to Mobile. The city, with its savvy businessmen and bustling port, imported tons upon tons of the tropical fruit from Latin America; it was a lucrative trade that continues to capture public imagination to this day. Unfortunately, today, Mobile’s once thriving banana docks remain alive only in the memories and writings of past residents, yet fortunately, the fruit remains. (Dew Drop banana pudding fans rejoice!) Follow along as we peel back Mobile’s banana history.

Since the 1950s, the Cavendish banana has been the most common variety sold  worldwide. That distinction once belonged to the Gros Michel (aka Big Mike) variety before a fungus known as Panama disease hit the banana plantations of Central America.

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The old scientific name for the plant was Musa sapientum, which is Latin for “fruit of the old wise men.” And considering the far-reaching nutritional benefits of packing a banana in your lunch, those wise men were on to something. Credited with boosting mood and moderating blood sugar, the fruit is low in calories and contains zero fat, sodium and cholesterol. Due
to its high potassium levels,  bananas are actually slightly radioactive. But don’t worry; you’d have to eat 10 million at once for the radiation to kill you.

Did you know monkeys have a more efficient method of peeling bananas? Rather than fighting with the tough stem, monkeys open bananas from the opposite end by gently pinching the top until it splits and peeling from there. By using this technique, the stem then becomes a nifty handle for banana munching

There’s more to the banana than meets the eye. Botanically considered a berry, a banana is the elongated fruit of herbaceous plants in the genus Musa. The fruit grows in clusters on plants that can reach a height of 25 feet. Bananas were first domesticated in Southeast Asia, although Latin America now dominates the world market. Hawaii is the only place in the United States where they are commercially grown. Aloha, banana daiquiris. 

Our history in bananas

  • In his book “The Mobile River, ” historian John Sledge notes, “Mobile had imported bananas since at least the 1820s, but the trade was erratic and the results often disappointing with overripe loads.” In the 1880s and 1890s, the trade was stabilized when American firms bought banana plantations in Costa Rica, Cuba, Honduras,  Nicaragua and Panama.
  • A legendary figure of Mobile’s banana trade, Sam “the Banana Man” Zemurray was a Russian Jew whose family immigrated to America when he was 14. Zemurray got his start in the banana business in 1899 by buying ripened bananas at Mobile’s port (which were usually discarded because they would spoil before reaching market) and selling them locally and along train lines. He later founded the Cuyamel Fruit Company and eventually headed the United Fruit Company for two decades.
  • Colorful memories of Mobile’s banana docks in the early 1900s abound. “I never smell a banana that I’m not taken back to my childhood in Mobile, Ala., ” author Celestine Sibley writes, “and the free fruit you could collect down by the dock and the railroad where they were offloading great, green-gold stems of fruit and hefting them into freight cars — usually to the accompaniment of a lusty work song.”
  • Noted as a tourist destination in the 1930s, Mobile’s exotic banana docks often captured visitors’ imaginations. It wasn’t unusual for a dock worker to discover a large spider or small monkey hidden among the bananas.
  • The remnants of the old banana docks were cleared away in the early 1990s to make way for the Convention Center.
Click here to see a video of the Mobile Banana Docks
during the process of unloading bananas. 


Text by Breck Pappas

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