The hunt for red bananas

THIS has not been the best year in recollection for a lot of things, but I'm hopeful for a few red bananas at Christmas. Well, the weather in Maine has been plainly on the wane, and 'twas not our best garden summer. It stayed wet to delay planting, and after planting it stayed wet some more to encourage delay, reluctance, and dispirit. I never did get a ripe tomato from the vine; plenty of green tomatoes but they wouldn't turn red. When I picked some and lined them up on a windowsill, they took an interest, but window-ripened tomatoes are a poor substitute. It wasn't cheerful to hear that other gardeners were having the same fizzle. I did get sweet corn and relished it, and my onions did fine. But green beans loitered in the damp, dark days, and as October frisked in my potato vines were still green and upright. Odd, all the way. So what will be the story on red bananas?

In my youth, our family fruit bowl at Christmas always had red bananas as well as yellow ones, and I continued the happy custom as our own younkers came along. Apples and pears we had, but we had to buy, and even hunt for, the other fruits that adorned the sideboard to gladden the yule-log season. I think nobody in our family ever tried to eat a pomegranate, but at least one was essential. Grapes and grapefruit, a few lemons, big navel oranges and smaller seedy oranges, and tangerines and kumquats, and whatever else was available in season.

There was never any question about red bananas -- they appeared in the stores along about Thanksgiving. Then, one year, there were no red bananas, and the children who came to raid our fruit bowl said, ``How come no red bananas?''

Our several storekeepers had a ready answer: Cuba! We were on the outs with Cuba and Cuba was our source for red bananas. This lack prevailed for several years, and then one fall there were red bananas again.

From Guatemala; red bananas were now being grown there and could be had in the stores again, but my storekeeper said he had ordered some with trepi-dation. The meantime had removed desire, and people had rather much forgotten about red bananas. A new generation had never heard of them. He didn't know as he'd stock them again.

Well in advance of Christmas last year I wrote to a friend who is produce manager for a supermarket chain, to say would he please favor us with red bananas for the Christmas fruit bowl. I never heard from him, but he did order in a supply of fine red bananas, and I got some for our sideboard in various ways, to wit:

I went to three of his stores -- at Rockland, at Waldoboro, and at Damariscotta. I got three different answers.

Primus: The Rockland manager told me that red bananas are not available.

Secundus: The manager at Waldoboro apologized sincerely and said he had forgotten to order any. Yes, red bananas were most certainly available, but each store manager had to order his own supply, and he had just simply forgotten about red bananas and he was ashamed of himself.

And at last: I didn't have to hunt down the manager at the Damariscotta store. There, in the fruit section, was a display counter piled high with hand upon hand of beautiful red bananas. They are available and they had been ordered! I welled all up inside with Christmas fervor and filled a shopping cart with them.

I took more than enough for our own fruit bowl and piled on more to scatter with friends and neighbors to bring joy to one and all. They were not expensive; they had not been priced as oddities. The checkout girl told me she had never seen a red banana until these came in and hadn't known there was any such thing. ``They been going some good,'' she said, possibly proving that the people have not completely forgotten. I asked later and was told the store sold them out; there was no spoilage.

I made the rounds of the town a few days before Christmas and distributed red bananas with lavish hand. So we were by no means the only ones to have them on the sideboard, and from everybody I got the same question -- wherever did I find the things? I told them about the three managers -- Disinterest, Forgetfulness, and On-his-toes. They all said if I found any red bananas another time, to get them some.

So I have written to my friend the produce manager, asking him to favor me again for my Christmas fruit bowl, and thanking him for past attention. I'll try Damariscotta first.

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