It’s 5 a.m. and the streets are beginning to awaken with the hustle and bustle of existence. The tiendas, the street vendor’s tables and empty donkey carts are slowly filling up with one of the most common food commodities unique to this area: the green banana.
They arrive to major intersections on trucks, direct from the storage houses in the zona bananera and throughout the day this unripened fruit will nourish and satisfy the stomachs of thousands of local Samarios. When did these bananas become such an important and popular part of the diet in this particular region, and why? History has the answer.
Since bananas are one of the few fruits that ripen best off the stalk, banana production is incredibly lucrative. In 1900, the United Fruit Company arrived in the Magdalena Basin and brought with it capital, skills and a production infrastructure to export bananas to the United States. The appearance of a foreign company in this forgotten, looked-down-upon district attracted thousands of willing workers to the sleepy town of Santa Marta and the city quickly developed into a dynamic urban centre. The local farmers in desperate need of capital and a reliable transport operation, somewhat blindly, decided to do business with United Fruit and thus began the banana craze, the beginning of “Bananaland,” or the so-called “Leaf Storm” as Gabriel García Márquez writes in his Nobel Prize winning works.
To begin this makeover, the United Fruit Company signed contracts with the local planters that were appalling and left all the risk in the hands of the planter. The company owned the fruit as soon as it was cut, but if the bananas presented any deformities or if U.S. agricultural authorities rejected them, the fruit was returned to the planter without payment. The agreement also prohibited planters from selling fruit to competitors (including those rejected bananas). Consequently, a huge surplus of green bananas built up in storage houses across Magdalena, and since the farmers didn’t have the means to transport the bananas across Colombia, they flooded the local food markets with this cheap and nutritious fruit. So whilst North Americans munched on yellow, ripe Colombian bananas, Samarios were resourcefully creating unique dishes that were to become an integral part of their everyday meals and food culture.
The most popular meal eaten for breakfast by the working class is cayeye or mote de guineo (guineo meaning banana), if you really want to get in with the local lingo. Cayeye is made by boiling bananas in salted water and then mashing themup like mash potatoes. Add some grated cheese and hogao, a relish made from chopped tomatoes, onions, cumin, salt, oil and various herbs, and voilá, an inexpensive breakfast is served. You can also mix the cayeye with just butter or add salted meat for extra flavour.
In the last few years, cayeye has become socially acceptable among Santa Marta’s “high society” and this exotic dish frequently appears on buffet tables at the wedding, graduation and birthday celebrations of affluent families. Green bananas can also be added to sancocho – a soup made from either chicken or fish – and fried in slices to make frito en tajadas.
Besides just munching on mashed bananas and cheese, why not add to your cultural experience and understanding of North American influence in Colombia during the 20th century by taking a stroll through “bananaland,” also called Barrio de los Gringos. Walk south on Carrera 4 to Calle 26 in Santa Marta and discover the remains of an old neighbourhood archi- tecturally styled like a nineteenth century Florida compound. Pass the old offices of the infamous United Fruit Company, as well as huge houses surrounded by lush hundred-year-old vegetation. Stop in at Centro Colombo-Americano (Calle 26 No. 4-100) for more information about this fascinating neighbourhood.
The banana industry has had a huge impact on the economic, cultural and infrastructural development of the Colombian Caribbean. Even the local football team’s name, El Ciclón Bananero (Banana Cyclone) was inspired by (you guessed it), bananas. But fun and games aside, without the presence of bananas in Magdalena department, what would it look like? A desolate, rundown town, lost amongst a sea of Aristocratic rulers eating only yucca and potatoes? Or a successful city thriving on self-made achievements?
One will never know how history would re-write herself if she were given the chance. Nevertheless, what was once a social problem has become a solution for thousands of families who wake up each day knowing that they won’t go hungry. And the next time you find yourself eating a banana stateside, think about where it came from, and what price was paid throughout history.