Monday, February 7, 2011

Costa Rica - the original Banana Republic?

Banana and Papaya bread, fried bananas with cinnamon sugar, tamales cooked in banana leaves....these are all recipes I came across so far in my inquiry into Costa Rican delicacies (oh yes, there will definitely be a Costa Rican cooking night - I'll upload pix and share recipes).

No - I did not make this.....but hopefully what I make will look as delicious
(minus the meat!)

I've always thought about bananas as being a huge part of Central American cuisine, but when I looked into them a bit (after the suggestion and article from Anne -thanks!!) I was surprised to discover that bananas aren't native to Central America. They were actually first documented and domesticated in Southeast Asia and in some parts of Africa. Portuguese sailors introduced them to the Americas in the 16th century, however they mainly were just eaten by locals at that point.

In 1871, a US railroad entrepreneur, Henry Meiggs, signed a contract with the government of Costa Rica to build a railroad connecting San Jose to the port of Limon in the Caribbean. His nephew, Minor Keith assisted in the project and took over after Meigg's death.
The building of the railroad through the dense, mountainous jungle allegedly claimed the lives of over 5000 workers, including Minor Keith's three brothers. Undaunted, Keith continued his work in Costa Rica, and also came up with the idea of planting bananas along the train route to use as a cheap food for his workers. The bananas flourished, and he ended up exporting them to the US...while paying exteremly low wages to his workers.

banana harvesting

Keith went on to establish plantations in Panama and Columbia and came to dominate the banana trade in Central America. His company eventually merged with another to become the United Fruit Company (UFCO), of which he was the vice-president. UFCO controlled more than 75% of the US market by the end of the 19th century.

train being loaded with bananas

A major monopoly, UFCO flourished in the early and mid 20th century, exporting from Central America, the West Indies, and the Caribbean coast of South America. UFCO was frequently accused of bribing government officials in exchange for preferential treatment, exploiting workers, paying little in the way of taxes to the governments of the countries in which it operated. The development of many of the countries in which the UFCO operated were greatly affected economically and politically by the involvement of the multinational corporation, which was nicknamed el pulpo, "the octopus," in reference to how the many arms of the company extended into the infrastructure of the country.

The UFCO also convinced the Costa Rican government that due to the threat of hurricanes, blight, and other natural threats that they needed reserve land, which prevented the government from distributing banana lands to local peasants who wanted to share in the lucrative banana business. Although it's easy to point a finger at UFCO, some of what they brought to Central America was positive in some ways - they built extensive railroads and ports, provided employment, created schools. However, in some places they discouraged the government from building highways as they would endanger the transportation monopoly UFCO had created.

A new face for the company

Although the UFCO had a lot of control over the dictators in many of the countries in which it operated, it had no control over WWII, which brought with it a huge slump in banana sales. Noting the success of Carmen Miranda at the time, the company created the character of Senorita Chiquita Banana. With a fruit strewn hat and a Latin dress, the banana shaped character danced her way into American households. Songs and jingles were written (with promotional copies of sheet music being sent to schools), her spunk and vibrancy was admired by American housewives, and US soldiers voted her the "woman" with whom they'd most want to share a foxhole.

Sheet music

However, after years of worker strikes, in 1958 labor reforms becan to take place, and the monopoly of UFCO was broken by an anti-trust suit. Some of their holdings were divested to Guatemalan companies. Undeterred by the anti-trust suit, the UFCO continued marketing itself to Americans in inventive ways during the 1960s - offering discount coupons and recipe books, creating catchy jingles, even hiring doctors to expound upon the health benefits of bananas.

The company was taken over by a corporate raider in the late 60s, who became the largest shareholder and eventually was overwhelmed by crippling debt and committed suicide by jumping out of his office on the 44th floor of the Pan Am Building in New York City. The company has merged and eventually became part of what is now Chiquita Brands International.

It's kinda crazy to think about how cheap bananas are here in the US, despite the fact that they are grown thousands of miles away, have a two week life span, and have to be transported in climate controlled containers. I read that American eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined - we are a HUGE market for them. I guess all that marketing after WWII really sunk into our national eating habits.

Well, in studying about the Congo last month, I learned a great deal about the devastating effects of colonialism. The UFCO has been accused of Neo-colonialism on the part of big business. I suppose every country I study will have a dark mark in it's history as the result of greed and the desire for power:(


  1. I'm coming over for the casado! Yummmmm.

  2. Check out this page for recipe ideas:
    Fried bananas with cinnamon sugar for dessert...should be way better than fufu last month!

  3. When is Costa Rica feast night??? I may need to book an early visit and leave a bribe to sit at the "Chef's Table".

  4. Hi - I work in the are that was colonized by the UFC in Costa Rica and I'm curious to know where you found the pictures documenting the banana harvesting. Thanks, Olivia

  5. Hi - I work in the are that was colonized by the UFC in Costa Rica and I'm curious to know where you found the pictures documenting the banana harvesting. Thanks, Olivia

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