By Tom Keer
Fly rodders easily recognize names like Kreh, Pallot, Fernandez, Flick, Beck, and Abrames. Yet for all the skill and knowledge they’ve shared to help fishermen catch fish, one name has outshone them all when it comes to helping anglers NOT catch fish: Lorenzo Dow Baker.
Baker introduced the banana to America, giving landlubbers a reason to celebrate. Pull one out on a fishing boat, however, and your captain will stare like a vampire seeing a cross. That superstition is as alive today as it was in the late 1880s.
Baker hailed from Wellfleet, Massachusetts. He was an ordinary ship captain who transported sugar, bamboo, and spices from Jamaica to the US. On one trip, Baker had extra room in his hold, so he filled it with thousands of pounds of green bananas purchased for a measly 320 bucks. When he tied up in port the fruit had ripened to glorious yellow color. Their flesh was as delicious as it was unique. Americans went wild for bananas, or at least, most did. Naysayers said they tasted like soap.
Operating instructions were well described in the 1870’s Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information; “Bananas are eaten raw, either alone or cut in slices with sugar and cream, or wine and orange juice. They are also roasted, fried, or boiled, and are made into fritters, preserves, and marmalades.”
The fruit was a success, so much so that the captain formed the Boston Fruit Company. Later, the business became the United Fruit Company and, ultimately, Chiquita Brands International.
But with the fruit’s popularity came a boycott from charter captains that continues to this day. In competitive fishing circles, it’s so intense that captains won’t even allow Banana Republic clothing or Banana Boat sunscreen on board. So why is it ok to bring an apple, an orange, or a bag of chips, but never a banana? Here are four reasons:
- The need for speed. To reach port before the fruit rotted, banana boats had to sail quickly. Their speeds were faster than normal trolling speeds, and that meant that very few if any fish were caught. You try eating green bananas for three straight months and see how you feel. My guess is you, too, would mutiny.
- Death by bananas. Rotting fruit produced a by-product of methane gas. As bananas were stored in a closed cargo hold the gas would continue to build. Sailors going below deck were likely to get sick or die by inhaling the toxic fumes. No bananas on board a vessel implied that no one would become ill or die – at least not from fruit gas.
- Death by bananas redux. Not much inspection went on in those days, so no one knew what accompanied the crates of bananas. Legend has it that deadly spiders were stowaways and routinely climbed into the fruit crates. Those who were stung by a Black Widow could be injured or die.
- Slippery when wet. Many sailors pitched their peels overboard, but some tossed the skins on the deck. You know what happens if you step on a banana peel….
Pull out a sack full of ham and cheese sandwiches on a fishing boat and everyone wants one. Pull out a bunch of bananas on that same vessel and you’ll be lucky if you don’t get pitched overboard. Enjoy them in the kitchen for breakfast, but if you want to be asked back on a friend’s fishing boat, then leave the yellow monsters at home.