This is an excerpt from Rich Cohen’s The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King, out this week from FSG.
Samuel Zemurray took his money and went south. Wisteria bloomed along the railroad tracks. Towns drifted by. He could smell the ocean before he could see it. He was like a kid on the frontier, who, a day after the harvest, folds his savings into a roll and goes to try his luck in town.
He was 17, a big kid, 6-foot-3 in boots, the wingspan of a condor. It was said he could swear in five languages. Having emigrated from Russia in 1891, Sam settled in Selma, Ala., where his uncle owned a store. That’s where he saw his first banana: golden-green, piled in the wares of a vagabond peddler. Soon after, charmed by this hint of paradise, he headed to the Gulf, looking for his own supply. It was the beginning of an adventure that would eventually make Sam one of the most powerful men in America, the head of the United Fruit Company, “El Pulpo,” the dreaded octopus with its tentacles in everything. In later years, Sam could alter the history of South America with a phone call, a string of expletives, a wave of the hand. But in the beginning, he was just a kid with a realization about bananas—an epiphany that changed everything.
Mobile was booming in the last years of the 19th century, a seedy industrial port filled with all the familiar types: the sharpie, the financier, the scoundrel, the chucklehead, the sport. Sam was a bit of everything. He could be shrewd, but he could also be naive. He was greedy for information. He took a room in a seamen’s hotel near the port. The waterfront was crossed by train tracks—dozens of lines converged here. Boxcars crammed with coal, fruit, cotton, and cane stood on the sidings. The railroad conductors were the aristocrats of the scene. They drank coffee in the station house, smug in their checkered caps. The docks were crowded with stevedores, most of them immigrants from Sicily. The train sheds were crowded with peddlers, mostly Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia. They bought merchandise off the decks of ships and sold it from carts in the streets of Mobile.
One evening, Sam stood on the wharf watching a Boston Fruit banana boat sail into the harbor. The Boston Fruit Company, which would become United Fruit, dominated the trade, with a fleet that carried bananas from Jamaica to Boston, Charleston, New Orleans, and Mobile. Zemurray would have seen one of the smaller ships that made the trip to the Gulf ports, a cutter with sails and engine. The funnel sent up black smoke. The pier strained under the weight of unloaders who appeared, as if out of nowhere, whenever a ship landed. As soon as the boat was anchored, these men swarmed across the deck, ants on a sugar pile, working in organized teams.
In the South, in the days before mechanical equipment, bananas were unloaded by hand, the workers carrying the cargo a stem at a time—from the hold, where the shipment was packed in ice, onto the deck of the ship. A banana stem is the fruit of an entire tree—100 pounds or more. Each stem holds perhaps 100 bunches; each bunch holds perhaps nine hands; each hand holds perhaps fifteen fingers—a finger being a single banana.
Sam would have watched closely as the workers formed lines that snaked from the deck of the ship down a ramp, and across the pier to the waiting boxcars. Each stem was passed from man to man until it reached the open door of the train, where an agent from the company examined it for bruises, freckles, color. If the stem passed muster, it was loaded into the car, which was air-cooled and straw-filled. When the car was full, the door was swung shut and locked. An empty car was rolled into its place. This continued for hours—a shift might run from 3 p.m. until midnight. When a train was packed, the switchman signaled and the cargo was carried across the South.
The bananas that did not past muster were dumped on the side of the yard, where they were further divided. Some were designated as turnings, meaning they were on their way to being worthless. At the end of the day, they were sold at a discount to local store owners and peddlers. You could see them, with their carts piled high, trundling through the streets, calling, “Bananas, bananas for sale! A nickel a bunch! Yes, we have bananas, we have bananas for sale!”
The bananas that did not make the cut as greens or turnings were designated “ripes” and heaped in a sad pile. A ripe is a banana left in the sun, as freckled as a Hardy boy. These bananas, though still good to eat, delicious even, would never make it to the market in time. In less than a week, they would begin to soften and stink. As far as the merchants were concerned, they were trash.
Sam noticed everything—the care with which the bananas were handled, the way each boxcar was filled and rolled to a siding, how men from the banana company, college men, moved through the crowd barking orders—but paid special attention to the growing pile of ripes. Anything can cause a banana to ripen early. If you squeeze a green banana it will turn in days instead of weeks; ditto if it’s nicked, dented, or banged. A ripe banana will cause those around it to ripen, and those will cause still others to ripen, until an entire boxcar is ruined. Before refrigeration was perfected, as much as 15 percent of an average cargo ended up in the ripe pile.