I live on Baker Road in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Baker is a common American name so the fact that I live on that street probably doesn’t mean much to anyone. When I tell folks that my street was named in honor of my town’s native son Lorenzo Dow Baker it still doesn’t mean much. And when I tell fishermen that they should know that name they scratch their head. They know the names of Jimmy Houston, Roland Martin and others, but they have never heard of Baker. But they should ‘cause Baker introduced the banana to the United States. For better or for worse!
Pull out a sack full of ham and cheese sandwiches during a fishing trip on a boat and everyone wants one. Pull out a bunch of bananas on that same vessel and you’ll be lucky if you don’t get pitched overboard. Granted, sailors are a superstitious lot, but what’s the big deal with the fruit?
Baker was born in Wellfleet in 1840, and by the time he was 41 years old he was as wealthy as Bill Gates is now. His fruit trafficking began honestly; Baker’s cargo ships ran from Jamaica to Philadelphia, and when he realized that he had extra room in his hold he filled the space with a new fruit that he enjoyed in the Tropics: the bananas. The crowds went wild for the new fruit and Baker formed the Boston Fruit Company that then became the United Fruit Company and is now Chiquita Brands International. And because bananas were new to North America, operating instructions came along with them. According to the 1870’s Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information, “Bananas are eaten raw, either alone or cut in slices with sugar and cream, or wine and orange juice. They are also roasted, fried, or boiled, and are made into fritters, preserves, and marmalades.” The picture here is of one of his homes, the Elephant House.
At around that time fishermen became superstitious of bananas on boats and boycotted them big time. Some charter captains won’t even allow Banana Republic clothing or Banana Boat sunscreen on board. So why is it ok to have a bag of chips on board but not a banana? Here are some reasons why:
Most of the boats had to sail quickly in order to reach port before the fruit began to rot. The speeds that they set forth were faster than normal trolling speeds… so few if any fish were caught. Give a hungry sailor a banana instead of a fresh fish filet and you’ll be sure to make him mad. So carrying bananas is likely to mean that no fish get caught.
Death by bananas. Rotting fruit releases methane gas, and when that gas is stored in a cargo hold it’s likely to poison any sailor who goes below. No bananas on board means no one gets hurt.
Death by bananas redux. Lots of deadly snakes and spiders would find their way into the crates of those kinds of fruit. A crew member loading or offloading the bananas could get stung or bitten. Death or serious injury from a tarantula bite was common in those days.
Tossing the skin from a banana on a deck resulted in slip and fall, hazardous to say the least.
And so for those reasons the captains began to the superstition by telling their crew to leave the crates of bananas on shore. Nothing good would come from the fruit, and it was not welcome aboard. That saying has carried over to the captains of today, with a few cuss words added for flavor.
Today is Banana Lovers Day. Enjoy them in the kitchen for breakfast but if you want to be asked back on a friend’s boat leave the yellow monsters at home.