A veteran Boston journalist once told me, "No story is 'dead' until you've sold it to the same editor three times." So we'll set a new record here with my dreary tale about red bananas, which has been making the rounds for many years, doomed to perpetual repetition. Every so often something else happens that opens the subject to a new version, and here we go again.
The red banana is dear to me. I prefer it to the yellow and tell people it is sweeter, richer, and a different and better fruit. I was first exposed to the red banana about 1914, when my father discovered the United Fruit Company place at the lower end of State Street on the Boston waterfront at Atlantic Avenue. The banana vessels of this company would bring green bananas by bunches from the Caribbean and Central America, and distribute them to stores for sale.
A "bunch" of bananas was a whole stem of fruit and weighed at least 25 pounds. It would be hung in a fruit store on display. Then, as customers asked for them, a merchant cut off "hands" of bananas with a special hook-knife seen only at banana stands. A hand of bananas meant about five "fingers" still joined as grown on the tree.
When a shipload of bananas arrived in Boston, the fruit had to be green to allow for ripening between Boston and the customer. If a stem arrived ripe in Boston, it was set aside on a huge table to be sold to street vendors and other people who knew how things were. A bunch of already-ripe bananas could be had for 25 cents, if you wanted to carry it away in your arms.
And my father would come home every week or so on the electric cars with bananas. Now and then he would get a bunch of red ones. The banana, my homework shows, comes in many kinds of yellow strains. The plantain, or cooking banana, is bigger and less sweet. A miniature variety is grown commercially in Hawaii, and can be grown in California and Florida. Southern Europe and Africa grow bananas. We get ours from the Islands and Central America.
The red banana is a separate kind, and in the trade is called a Jamaican. I believe it to be finer-textured, sweeter, and more pleasing all around than a yellow variety. The problem is to find some in a store. If you ask a store why it doesn't carry red bananas, you'll be given the common answer, "They don't sell." It will do no good to ask how they know when they don't have any!
When, after long supplication, I prevailed on the manager of our local superstore to order some, red bananas sold well simply because folks had never seen any and were curious. The fruit-counter clerk told me he was astonished and had to order some more.
"No," he said, "I don't have any this week, as I forgot to order enough to keep up."
I thought then of my Uncle Ralph, the Yankee storekeeper, who wrote the book and said it doesn't take much to run a chain store. Uncle Ralph was the one who sold all the black pepper, which doesn't sell too well.
Black pepper is sold mostly in four-ounce packages, enough to last an average family a long time. But the Slade spice people also put up a one-pound package for hotels and restaurants, and somehow they fouled up on sales and had a warehouse somewhere in New York State with tons of black pepper in pound boxes with no expectation of unloading.
It wouldn't pay to repackage, and there was small demand for pepper by the pound. My uncle heard about this and called Slade by telephone to make a ridiculously small offer for the lot. Slade accepted, and Uncle Ralph hung up to think of a way to sell pepper. The morning a freight car with his pepper was set off on his siding, he went to the post office and bought a sheet of 1-cent postage stamps.
To the postal clerk he said, "I wonder if you've heard anything about black pepper?" This was in World War II ration time, and some grocery item or another was being added to the ration list every day. People stocked up on anything about to be rationed. Then Uncle Ralph got a haircut and asked the barber if he'd heard anything about black pepper. And then he went back to his store and bided while gossip, the fleetest of all evils, went about the land in a cloud of dust.
In a short time, the first pepper customer came in, and Uncle Ralph sold the first one-pound box of pepper he ever sold. He cleaned out of pepper in two days, and even sold some to his competitors, who were mystified by the sudden demand.
By the way, Uncle Ralph always kept a stem of red bananas by the yellows. He preferred them himself and would cut one off each noon to go with his lunch. He said it was surprising how many customers would see him eating one and decide to have one, too.
But what happened to make this another story? Well, wifey came back from shopping and said she got a hand of red bananas this time. To which I quoted querulously, "Corn flakes and red banana for breakfast?"
To which she replied, "The same."
But the following morning, I gazed down upon a bowl of Cream of Wheat, and no red banana did I see.
"It happened," she said, "that the cleaning girl saw the red bananas on the shelf, and she'd never seen one. She thought they were yellow bananas gone rotten, and she hove 'em in the trash."