When you and everyone you know eats something regularly, with relish, it’s hard to imagine there are people elsewhere who have never even heard of it. Friends, there are people outside the South who have never had a banana sandwich.
The construct is that of a tomato sandwich: flimsy white bread, Duke’s, sliced banana – lightening quick and delightful. Some people replace the mayo with peanut butter. Others hit the trifecta with all three. The sandwiches are a little sweet and a little savory, pillowy soft with a soupcon of squish. Many a Southerner is more Team PB&B than PB&J.
Data tells us the average American eats 26 pounds of bananas a year. We are unlikely to be average in our consumption around here. The annual tally per Southern used in sandwiches and pudding alone must be staggering. It’s a whole bunch. Heh.
Bananas grow in only a tiny sliver of the South, yet they are so commonplace on our kitchen counters that one might suspect they are native. Near Silver Lake, Florida back in 1876, someone tried to establish a commercial banana farm. It didn’t succeed because the climate wasn’t hot and humid enough. (Are you kidding me? How could that be?) Anyhow, most bananas are still imported from Central and South America.
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Because they were imported, bananas were once a pricey luxury, but spread to the common man thanks to an enterprising business man named Samuel Zemurray. In the book The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King by Rich Cohen, we learn that Zemurray saw his first banana in Selma, Alabama. He paid a visit to Mobile, where the big fruit ships came in to dock in the deep port, and saw piles of bananas discarded as garbage because importers thought that more than two brown freckles on the yellow peel rendered them rotten and inedible. Given that the fruit had been on a slow boat and then transferred onto rail cars that creeped along the tracks, unblemished bananas didn’t stand a chance. Zemurry’s breakthrough idea was to use the burgeoning telegraph system to let railway station managers know that he and his bananas were en route. The managers and grocery store owners could come meet the train, ready and waiting to take delivery with quickness. There are tales of Zemurray standing in the boxcars and tossing bananas to curious citizens along the way. He had made $100,000 (big bucks now, unimaginable then) the year he turned 18 in the 1890s.
So thanks, Sam, for setting us on a course toward banana sandwiches -- the avocado toast of the South.