Alex Goodall

A Fruity Tale

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King

By

Jonathan Cape 270pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

What do you think about when you look at that uneaten banana, freckling at you accusatorially from the fruit bowl? For most people, the answer is probably not a lot. For a special few, though, an encounter with a banana can be a life-changing event in which it becomes a hallowed fruit, coloured not yellow but gold.

One such person was Samuel Zemurray, a Jew originally from Bessarabia in the Russian empire, who settled in the American South in the early 1890s before building a banana company that, at its peak, came to challenge the supremacy of its gargantuan rival, United Fruit. A pioneer in the industrialisation of mass consumption, Zemurray was two parts Henry Ford and one part John Harvey Kellogg (he advocated fig-only diets and extolled the virtues of standing on one’s head to aid digestion), while being also 100 per cent American: an archetype of thrusting individualistic capitalism at a time when big men supposedly still ran businesses rather than the other way round. As a youth, he made his first dollars in Selma, Alabama, by trading whatever he could lay his hands on. Then in 1893 came the Pauline banana experience. Sensing an opportunity, he began building an empire of fruit based on little more than a willingness to work twice as hard as the competition and an understanding that success in business came from knowing every inch of the trade.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter