There's more to the story of Bananas Foster than flambeed fruit. While the enticing dessert is a sweet legacy of New Orleans' once-booming banana trade, there's also a less savory one: banana republics.
Today, the banana is America's favorite fruit, but it was once considered exotic. The fruit only became commonplace in the United States starting in the 1870s, thanks to improvements in shipping and botany. By the turn of the century, the banana trade was a million-dollar industry.
Big fruit companies were based in New Orleans. Freighters bursting with bananas clogged the Mississippi River. A huge network of trains stretched out like a spiderweb to transport bananas across the country.
"It was a huge product for the port," explains Ralph Brennan, owner of Brennan's, Bourbon Street's legendary restaurant. The dessert — bananas, butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, rum, banana liqueur and vanilla ice cream — was invented there in 1951. "A lot of people worked on the docks at the time and unloaded the bananas from the ships."
Made at Brennan's
The story of how Bananas Foster came to be is recounted in Miss Ella From Commander's Palace, the new memoir from New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan.
At the time Owen Brennan, Ralph Brennan's uncle, owned Brennan's Restaurant, and his sister Ella managed it. Owen told Ella to come up with a special new dessert for a dinner that night in honor of the New Orleans Crime Commission chairman, Richard Foster.
"Damn you, Owen," Ella replied. Feeling a mixture of frustration and panic, she dashed into the kitchen.
"While fussing and carrying on, she just grabs the bananas," explains her daughter Ti Adelaide Martin, now co-owner of Commander's Palace, also in New Orleans. "[They] were probably just sitting right there, readily available."
Ella decided to sauté them, remembering a dish of caramelized bananas that her mother often made for breakfast. She was also inspired by the popular baked Alaska dessert at a rival restaurant and thought, "Why don't we flame it like Antoine's?" says Martin. The newly christened "Bananas Foster" was a huge hit at dinner that night.
But there's another reason why there were so many bananas in the kitchen that day. Ella and Owen's brother John (Ralph Brennan's father) ran a produce business that had a surplus of — you guessed it — bananas.
John's wife had ties to the Standard Fruit Company. She took trips to Cuba and Honduras with her family on Standard's steam ships.
Those good times didn't last, though. "Like all good family businesses, they got into a fight and split up the company," Ralph Brennan says. "They wound up losing it all."
One of Standard's biggest competitors, Cuyamel Fruit Company, was also based in New Orleans. The company was founded by Samuel Zemurray, a Russian immigrant who, while working at the docks one day, noticed piles of quickly ripening bananas marked for the trash. He began buying them up at bargain prices and selling them locally.
The idea was a hit. Zemurray earned enough to buy some land in Honduras and began operating banana plantations himself. He even famously helped restore General Manuel Bonilla to the Honduran presidency in 1912, solely to protect his own business interests.
Meddling in the political affairs of so-called "banana republics" was only one of his many controversial business practices, however.
The industry was rife with brutal work conditions: heavy loads, sweltering temperatures and tropical diseases. Workers were regularly exposed to toxic pesticides. The banana had attracted a fungus that destroyed thousands of acres, forcing the workers to keep moving to "outrun the disease," says Justin Wolfe, associate professor of Latin American history at Tulane University. The businessmen and workers were in "a kind of arms race with mother nature, which they were going to lose."
By the late 1950s, New Orleans began losing its grip on bananas due to wage disputes and resistance to modernizing the port.
A Lasting Legacy
But Bananas Foster remains the top-selling dessert at Brennan's, and has become one of New Orleans' most famous treats. "My aunt gets an awful lot of credit for coming up with this dessert that's lasted for so many years all over the country — and maybe even the world," Ralph Brennan says.
Yet Martin and her mother can't help but wonder, "Why in the world do people make such a big deal out of that simple dessert?"