Being a child of the post-WWII world, we didn’t see many bananas as I was growing up. England may be temperate but it is far from tropical, even if it is washed by the Gulf Stream. The few bananas we saw came off the Banana Boats that arrived with cargoes of ripe fruit at the Port of Bristol docks down at Avonmouth. The bananas would be harvested in the Islands, in great green clusters, and arrive in the UK, yellow and fragrant. However, being picked green, the bunches often harbored tropical, poisonous snakes and spiders and the British stevedores unloading the boats had to be very vigilant.
Both of my Grandfathers, my Dad, and various Uncles worked on the docks and smuggled bananas out to their families. They were a rare treat! Sometimes crates would break, “sort of by accident”, and all sorts of treasures made their way past the dock authorities: small amounts of Ceylon tea in a twist of paper, single bananas, glass marbles, fresh oranges, Chinese wooden ornaments; anything that could be tucked in a coat pocket. Nothing rare or expensive but in post-war England these were treats.
Sometimes the Banana Boats would be delayed at sea and the bananas rotted in the holds. The stinking fruit would be hauled off to the salt marshes where they would be burned. The plumes of black smoke from the mud flats let us know there would be no contraband bananas that week.
Bananas became more plentiful in England and were a great treat. They became incorporated into British recipes such as Banana Custard and Manchester Tart: a pastry base, covered with fruit jam, layered with bananas slices, and covered with sweet, yellow Bird’s custard. During my nursing training days, this was a favorite pudding in the hospital dining room.
I never thought the time would come when I would never want to see another banana! In my twenties I volunteered with the British organization, Voluntary Services Abroad, and spent two years on the tropical Llanos plains of Colombia, South America. Arriving at the orphanage to take care of the babies and children, I noted the great bunches of bananas hanging and ripening in the kitchen. My mouth watered! But, after two years of a Spartan diet, with bananas as desert most days and for snacks, I was so sick of them that I vowed never to eat one again – but I did, years later.
The banana tree is a marvelous plant: it often begins as a creeping root from another banana tree, sometimes on a neighboring property, and grows fast. The stem is actually multiple folds of leaves that shoot up to the sky, to erupt almost overnight in a flurry of huge, segmented leaves. The banana tree trunk is full of water and very heavy: it has to be to support the great bunches of bananas they produce. Before the fruit come the flowers: exquisite forms of conical, interfolded, deep purple petals and a perfume that attract butterflies, moths and many different insects including ants, that all play a part in the pollination of the fruit. After the tree has fruited it dies and falls heavily to the ground to nourish the next tree that will grow in its place. It almost seemed like these new trees arrive overnight: where there was a space between the guava trees and orange bushes there would spring up a new banana tree. The same happened with the papaya and avocado trees: they were rarely planted but were there, almost by magic.
I’m pretty prosaic about bananas now, I still enjoy them but have had a few culinary disasters, like the time I tried to make banana ice-cream, and bananas and Cheddar cheese don’t really go well together! I mainly stick to eating the fresh fruit. However, my greatest treat in the world is Bananas Foster – with real vanilla ice-cream! I never knew that you could coat sliced bananas in a warm, gooey, caramel sauce that you could turn crunchy by chilling! And you could even souse them with rum: a far cry from the smuggled tropical treats off the Banana Boats!
Publishing Editor’s Note: Once again, Angela’s life experiences leap off the page and into our imagination and hearts. I know you will never view a bunch of Bananas in the same way. The photo was taken by me.