Here is a column.


Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry begins with her protagonists, the Dog Woman and her adopted son Jordan, attending the unveiling of a new exotic fruit, bought to England by the explorer Thomas Johnson. It is like nothing they have ever seen before. The Dog Woman looks at it and sees genitalia, and is horrified at the idea of any decent Christian putting such a thing in her mouth. Jordan looks at it and sees sea and sun and sky. It is 1633 and they are looking at, as far as they know at the time, the first banana in England.

Obviously everyone knows that particular fruits and vegetables originated in particular places, and that until there was travel/colonialism/trade to and from those places those foods were not available to the rest of the world. And so apples from Himachal Pradesh are a 20th Century thing, and tomatoes and potatoes weren’t a part of our basic cooking until they got here from South America. I know this. And yet.

There’s a moment in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit where the wizard Gandalf asks Bilbo Baggins to serve the chicken and tomatoes to his guests. “Tomatoes” were changed to “pickles” in later editions of the book; Tolkien’s Middle-earth is generally believed to be set in a version of Europe’s distant past and tomatoes certainly wouldn’t be available to the hobbits were this the case. Tolkien seems to have relaxed the rules of his world a little elsewhere, though; in Lord of the Rings Sam Gamgee wishes he had some potatoes to go with a stew, and assuming the “pipeweed” everyone’s smoking is tobacco, some sort of trans-Atlantic travel has clearly been taking place. (If it’s not tobacco, these books are fascinating for all manner of new reasons). Tolkien’s not the only one, of course; the slightly-less-rigorous George R.R. Martin has managed to avoid potatoes in Westeros, and has even managed to make a diet based primarily on turnips sound rather delicious.

But unless you’re reading these books a lot more carefully than I usually do, it’s easy to miss the fact that these frequently-described and very tempting meals are missing ingredients that we would generally take for granted. And while the incident in Winterson’s book foregrounds the strangeness of the banana, it doesn’t give us a sense (nor is it trying to) of what it’s like to live in a world where food is radically different to our own.

I’ve recently discovered E.M. Channon, a writer of books for children and adults in the early twentieth century. Channon’s Expelled From St. Madern’s, published in 1928, is not quite like any school story I’ve ever read—there’s a genuinely dark undertone to it that sits at odds with the genre and yet is very effective. And yet the thing that struck me most was a character who can be bribed with the promise of a banana, and in whose presence the fruits have to be “cunningly hidden”. In his Island Stories Raphael Samuel (who probably did not read Channon) suggests that 1928, the year in which the London Fruit exchange opened, “marked the coming-of-age of the banana”. Samuel is referring to the wide range of produce from across the empire that was flooding into Britain and changing its material (and thus culinary, and literary) life forever.

But my favourite literary banana story is a true one, if its author is to be believed, and set at the end of the Second World War. Auberon Waugh tells the story of how, at the end of the war, a banana was to be distributed to every British child. Evelyn Waugh and his wife had three children, including Auberon, and the household received three bananas. In front of the three children Waugh sat down and ate all three bananas, topped with sugar and cream.


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