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Seattle farmers market shoppers this month will have the chance to buy an heirloom apple which might symbolize a pivotal point in fruit history.

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Washington Heirloom Apple Represents a Bite of Banana History

winterbanana.jpg
Seattle farmers market shoppers this month will have the chance to buy an heirloom apple which might symbolize a pivotal point in fruit history.

In 1878, David Flory noticed one of the seedlings he'd planted for top grafting on his Logansport, Ind., farm was "smoother and more thrifty than those surrounding it." As recounted in the records of the Indiana Horticultural Society, he dispensed with his grafting plan and tended the tree. Within a few years, he'd produced a pinkish fruit that he judged the best apple of his growing career. Flory named the apple "winter banana" for its rich, tropical flavor.

The apple became popular after a Michigan nursery started advertising it in 1890, but a few farmers questioned whether it was deserving of the "banana" moniker.

"I had the pleasure of tasting one of the apples," a Mr. Whitney of Trumbull County told the Ohio State Horticultural Society in 1896. "They said it had the flavor or suggested banana, but I failed to discover any odor or taste that suggested banana."

So why compare apples to bananas? While I couldn't track down any documentation of Flory's mindset, the 1880s marked the start of a market shift in which banana sales surpassed apple sales. By 1900, bananas were the most popular fruit in the U.S.--and remain so today.

According to Dan Koeppel's authoritative Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, bananas were a star attraction at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, holding their own against Heinz ketchup and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. "This was the most romantic of the all the innumerable things I had seen," inventor Frederick Upham Adams later recalled.

After the Civil War, Americans could buy bananas, but they weren't cheap. Bananas were considered a luxury item, like artichokes and caviar. Since their suggestive shape could scandalize Victorian eaters, merchants sold the fruit peeled, sliced, and wrapped in foil.

In 1885, a 25-year old Boston grocer partnered with a Cape Cod sea captain to revolutionize the banana-import industry. Andrew Preston believed refrigerated shipping could rescue the banana from its rarefied position as a special-occasion treat and make the fruit "more popular than apples." The company Preston and Lorenzo Dow Baker founded is now known as Chiquita.

Whether or not they were mindful of the increased appetite for bananas, Midwestern farmers began enthusiastically planting Flory's Winter Banana trees. Unfortunately, the tree proved unsuitable for the heartland. By the early 1900s, farmers' associations were forced to warn their members against investing in the varietal, despite reports of good specimens fetching upward of $10 a bushel.

"We usually regard a variety as most likely to succeed in the region of its birth, somewhat as we do men and women, but it was not true in this case," William Ragan, assistant pomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said in 1909.

Where winter bananas flourished, Ragan continued, was Washington state.

"In the Northwest, it has attained much commercial importance," a 1921 apple almanac decreed.

Many apple salesmen focused on the Winter Banana's appearance; an early ad calling it "the handsomest apple we ever saw" excused a mere honorable mention in an important competition by explaining "the time of the meeting was such that the members of the society could not see the fruit at its best."

Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance director Chris Curtis describes the apple as "sweet and crisp and this gorgeous yellowy color."

Anderson Acres will be selling Winter Bananas at the University District and West Seattle markets next weekend. Availability this weekend depends on the week's harvest, Curtis says.

Follow Voracious on Facebook & Twitter. Follow me at @hannaraskin

 
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