Up the coast from Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, acres of white cargo containers, stacked many tiers high, sprawl like a sub-equatorial glacier, pushing toward the sea. Offshore, big ships wait their turn to load the containers, each packed with 40-pound boxes of bananas. Costa Rica is the world’s eighth largest banana producer and the U.S. buys nearly half of its harvest.
Botanically, bananas are berries, the edible fruit of several herbaceous flowering plants from Indomalaya and Australia. Initially domesticated in Papua New Guinea, almost all modern edible bananas come from two wild species. Although more than 100 countries currently grow bananas, Costa Rica was the first Central American nation to plant a crop. The phalanxes of refrigerated containers at the Caribbean port wear the livery of Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte.
It’s easy to spot wild bananas growing along the road through Limon. Nature’s largest herbaceous flowering plant, it’s long, lobate leaves fan out from the top of a stalk that can easily top 12 feet tall. From the base of that fan hangs the plant’s flamboyant flower that morphs into a cluster of bananas. The many different varieties bear fruit that vary in size, color, and firmness, and are covered with rinds that can be green, yellow, red, purple, or brown.
Up in the hills above Limon, domesticated bananas grow in plantations, some owned by Del Monte. Although the plants grow on raised parallel rows, the fields still have a disorderly, jungle-like appearance. Blue plastic bags, encasing the immature banana bunches, seem incongruous against the tangle of green leaves. The bags help protect the tender rinds of the bananas from damage by windblown leaves.
Each banana plant bears one bunch of fruit and then dies. Workers then cut the root mass into pieces to sow and grow new plants. Each plant has a color-coded tag indicating the month that the fruit will be ready to harvest. The bunches are harvested, prepared, packed, and shipped green to survive the trip to North American food markets.
“It takes two men to cut the bunches free from the stalks — one trusting soul to hold the heavy bunch up and steady, and the other to skillfully swing a machete,” explained Minor Fernando, a professional guide. “They have to be good friends.”
Overhead cables enable the harvesters to slide the pendulous bunches to a central receiving station. In the complex of open-air sheds, workers strip off the bags and hose the emerald bunches before passing them into large wash pans. Music courses through the shaded sheds as a row of women, wearing rubber aprons and long gloves, load the separated bunches onto conveyors leading into machines that complete the quality-control and packing process.
Along with the big corporations, small producers raise nearly half of the country’s bananas, and much of the process is done by hand. Costa Rican banana workers have had a potent voice in the country’s history. More than 34,000 people work a total of more than 100,000 acres and help produce more than 5 million metric tons of bananas last year. Because their wages are relatively high and the country has a strong mandate for ecological and ethical operations, the industry focuses on growing quality fruit as a competitive edge in a crowded market.
The European Union just granted “Geographical Indication” status to Costa Rica’s bananas.
This prestigious label recognizes quality produce and sustainable production methods. Costa Rica is the only banana-exporting country to receive the distinction.
Fufu originated as a West African staple, made with cassava, and was adapted in the Caribbean using plantains, the tough-skinned cousins of bananas.
2 pounds ripe plantains (The plantains must be ripe, indicated by dark rinds.)
2 strips bacon, fried crispy and crumbled with the grease (Or, substitute 4 ounces of any robust pork item, such as country ham, smoked sausage, or roast pork, finely chopped.)
A dash of Scotch bonnet pepper or sauce
Juice from half a lime
Jigger of dark rum (optional)
Peel and mash the plantains along with the bacon and a large dollop of the grease. Add a dash of the Scotch bonnet pepper to taste, along with the lime, and continue mashing. Warm on the stove or in a microwave, and add the rum, if desired. Serve as a side dish instead of potatoes.