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Where does a sundae come from?

Malaysia, Yugoslavia, and Persia should all take a bow - but so should Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and a nameless shopkeeper.

By Owen Thomas / April 5, 2005

Going bananas

Would you like some giant herb with your ice cream? Bananas don't grow on trees - they grow on plants that are related to lilies, orchids, and palms. The banana plant is actually the largest herb in the world. Horticulturists classify bananas as "starchy berries."

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Until the 1870s, bananas were unknown in America. The fruit, which originally grew in Malaysia, had spread to India and China centuries before the Christian era began. After conquering India in 327 BC, Alexander the Great brought the banana west. These were not the large Dwarf Cavendish or Gros Michel bananas we know today. Early bananas were small. Arab traders thought they looked like fingers. "Banan" means "finger" in Arabic. A Portuguese Franciscan monk, Tomas de Verlanga, brought banana plants to the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo in 1516.

Bananas got to be big business in America not long after they were introduced at Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition of 1876. Bananas wrapped in tinfoil sold for 10 cents apiece. Soon merchants were establishing banana plantations in Central America and shipping the fruit to the United States. The United Fruit Company, which came to monopolize the banana business, grew so powerful that it virtually controlled the governments of some Latin American countries. (You've heard of a "banana republic"?) Part of the fruit's popularity was the fact that for a long time bananas, along with oranges, were the only fruits available in the winter.

Fill 'er up - with maraschino cherries?

The sweet sundae-topper has its origins in Yugoslavia and northern Italy. For centuries, merchants had used marascas - small, bitter, black wild cherries - to make a sweet liqueur. Part of the flavor came from crushed cherry stones, which have an almondlike flavor. Marascara cherries preserved in the cherry liqueur were imported into the United States in the 1890s. These maraschino cherries were an expensive luxury served at the finest hotels.

With typical ingenuity, American cherry processors figured out a way to make a less expensive version. They used Royal Anne cherries, less liqueur, and almond oil instead of crushed cherry pits. In the 1920s, alcohol was eliminated altogether when horticulturalist Ernest Wiegand found a way to preserve cherries using brine instead of alcohol. The American version of the maraschino became so popular that it completely replaced the foreign import.

Today, cherry "briners" in Oregon use 10 million gallons of brine each year to preserve cherries. Processors have to pay to dispose of the used brine, which consists of water, sodium metabisulfite, citric acid, and calcium chloride. The used brine also contains sugar from the cherries. Just about anything that contains sugar can be fermented to produce ethanol, which can be used as fuel. Why not used brine? Processors now must pay nearly $1 million to dispose of the brine. The potential ethanol "harvest" is 250,000 gallons. But the economics of this don't quite work yet. Distillation plants would have to be built, and waste brine trucked in. It doesn't make sense yet, but in the future, do you suppose your gasoline would have a cherry flavor?

Marsh mallow-less marshmallow sauce

We still call them marshmallows, but there's no marsh mallow in them anymore. Candy made with honey and thickened with sap from the root of the marsh mallow (Athea officinalis) plant was savored in ancient Egypt. Marsh mallow, the plant, grows to be two to four feet tall. It has gray-green leaves and pink flowers. Not surprisingly, it grows in marshes and is related to other "mallow" plants, such as the rose mallow, the apricot mallow, and the common mallow.