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Mark Steyn

Topical Take

Skin in the Game

Last week, I wrote about the new Euro-American Cheese War. In such a turbulent world, it's heartening to know that festering differences can sometimes be worked out. A few days ago, it was announced that Chiquita (America's biggest banana company) and Fyffes (Europe's) were merging to form the world's top banana. It's only a few years ago that these two banana behemoths were at each other's throats in a transatlantic banana war. While the merger may ensure a piece of banana in our time, it does not resolve the question of what shape a banana should be. Here's what I had to say about the politics of bananas 12 years ago in The Daily Telegraph:

I have mixed feelings about this week's landmark court decision striking down EU regulations on the curvature of fruit and veg. As a rule, I like my cucumbers straight and my bananas curved. I'm cool on EU regulation 1677/88 (if memory serves) requiring Class One cukes to curve less than 10mm every 10cm. But on bananas I'm a bender. The notorious EU regulation 2257/94 stating that bananas must be "free of abnormal curvature" and should be at least 5.5 inches long makes no sense, unless it was drafted by Paula Jones while still in shock.

But, frankly, I had no idea the EU were the ones in favour of uncurved bananas. I seem to remember during the "transatlantic banana split" of a few years ago that it was we in North America who were on the side of the straight banana and you in Europe who were the curvy ones. The banana war of the late Nineties was the turn-of-the-millennium version of those 19th-century imperial disputes where the Great Powers line up behind one obscure tribe or another and stage a proxy war. In this case, it was something to do with the different spheres of influence of Fyffes, Europe's banana supremo, and Chiquita, America's top banana. The US championed the cause of Latin-American bananas - these are the so-called "dollar" bananas: tall, straight, and thick-skinned, much like the Americans themselves. The Europeans, meanwhile, were on the side of Afro-Caribbean-Pacific bananas: short, bent, and with a pronounced aroma, much like the Europeans themselves.

Yet, despite the preceding slur, I'm personally drawn to the furtive, stooped, crooked European fruit. The dollar banana strikes me as pretty tasteless by comparison: it makes a witty and amusing touch for your headgear on Carmen Miranda night at the golf club, but is less effective in your standard banana cream pie. As I understand it, the only people in Europe who like straight bananas are the Germans, who lacking any former colonies in the Caribbean were obliged to import their bananas from Latin America (this may be why so many bigshot Nazis retired there). The biggest banana consumers in the world, the Germans have a psychologically complex relationship with the fruit. Konrad Adenauer famously brandished a banana in the Bundestag, calling it "paradisical manna", and thus became the only European politician to appear with a banana as a matter of policy until that monkey who got elected mayor the other week.

Yet, after reunification, West Germans referred to East Germans disparagingly as "bananen" because the delicacy had been so rare on the other side of the Berlin Wall ("Ja, ve haff nein bananen"). At the same time, the biggest-selling vibrator in Germany was a battery-operated banana and the biggest-selling condom was banana-flavoured. I gather there are EU regulations on the shape and size of condoms, so presumably the popular banana Eurocondom conforms to directives on both banana size and condom size. I don't believe the banana question would ever have reared its ugly head had not tariff-free dollar bananas for Germany been written into the original Treaty of Rome. Conversely, the rest of Europe's banana supply - almost entirely curved - was governed by the Banana Regime of the 1957 Lome Convention. The German banana exemption was the Trojan horse by which the straight banana penetrated the European hinterland.

And there things rested until 1993 when the EU (Motto: "You don't have to be bananas to work here but it helps") attempted to reconcile the curved bananas of the Lome Convention with the straight bananas of the Treaty of Rome and wound up getting taken to the WTO and infuriating the Americans. At the height of the subsequent banana war, Brussels was putting tariffs on straight bananas. With hindsight, it seems the height of hypocrisy to defend the curved banana against the straight banana when, on the equally vexed question of cucumber curvature, the EU instituted mandatory straightening.

In 1999, Washington demanded an investigation into EU policy on the crookedness of fruits, but at the time Brussels was too busy investigating the fruits of crookedness, with a half-hearted inquiry into EU corruption and cronyism. This was the period when Commissioner Edith Cresson was in trouble for putting her dentist on the payroll as a $300,000 EU "scientific adviser", and then declaring she was shocked to find this sort of thing going on right under her nose, though that would seem the obvious place to look for one's dentist. Mme Cresson, to the best of my knowledge, played no role in drafting EU policy on the identification of fruits, except for her celebrated remark that most Englishmen were homosexual.

Finally, you're probably wondering how the straight vs curved banana dispute fits into the war on terror. All I know is that Muslims believe that man was expelled from the Garden of Eden not because of an apple but because of a green banana. Where does the EU stand (or slip) on those?

~first published in The Daily Telegraph on June 29th 2002. Don't forget that many of Mark's Telegraph columns from this period are collected in his anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, personally autographed copies of which are available exclusively from the SteynOnline bookstore. Proceeds go to support Mark's legal offense fund.

from The Daily Telegraph, March 19, 2014

 

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