I have overcome many hurdles in my quest to reverse 27 years of picky eating. I battled slimy okra and was overcome with love for it. I faced off against peaches and forged a lifelong friendship. I challenged broccoli, Brussels sprouts, brown grains and fish, and now I regularly invite all of them over for dinner.
Yet, even with all these successes, I am fine with the fact I will never love, never like, never accept bananas. And I can be so zen about it because my picky-eating research has dug up irrefutable proof that bananas have a depraved past. At best, bananas want to inveigle me in slip-and-fall scams. At worst, they have deadly designs on my person.
I know I’m not going to win any popularity contests with this statement, because according to the USDA, bananas alone “claim over 50 percent of the volume of fresh fruit imports,” and they are also the No. 1 consumed fruit in the United States.
Bah! I was never one to follow a crowd.
I’m also well aware that bananas are full of vitamin B6, but I can get my B6 fix from salmon or potatoes — foods I actually like — because in my opinion, bananas are rotten to the core.
In truth, I have liked plantains. But only if they’ve been thinly sliced, fried to a crisp and prepared by Chez Henri’s chef Paul O’Connell in Cambridge, Mass.
First, some background.
My lifelong loathing for the yellow fruit was conceived as a simple aversion to their texture that I went on to apply to all things mushy and gooshy: oatmeal, rice pudding, cellulitic flan. So great was my disgust at the feel of banana that I soon turned against the flavor of banana. Or even banana-scented things, because, quite honestly, I learned very quickly as a kid that bananas have the worst B.O. of any fruit.
I didn’t even have to see the bananas my mom packed to know they were there. Their aroma escaped the thick metal of my battered “Star Wars” lunchbox and enveloped my locker in a bruised, yellow cloud. It seeped through the plastic baggies and suffused everything with banana stench. Sandwiches, chips, Oreos. Until I started researching the topic of picky eaters and the lives we lead for my book on that subject, I didn’t know that being highly attuned to banana odor was a protective response from my brain connected to a neurological response known as olfactory adaptation.
Marcia Pelchat, a picky-eating and olfactory scientist at Monell Chemical Sense Center in Philadelphia, explained olfactory adaptation (also referred to as “smell fatigue”) to me: “Basically, the olfactory system is set up to detect relevant stimuli [odors], and often, that means change.” Meaning that when you come upon a smell, your olfactory system checks it out and, after your brain determines that it’s not life threatening — like a gas leak or something burning on the stove — it instructs your nose to stop smelling it.
However, if a change occurs and another smell enters the picture, your olfactory system instant-messages your brain to see whether this new smell is a threat to you. If it is, your brain will make sure you continue smelling it to keep you constantly alert to its presence.
My brain is not totally off-base in its assumption that bananas are trying to kill me, but before I get to their murderous intentions, consider their felonious history.
Today, the ol’ slip-on-a-banana-peel gag is a staple in comedy, but there was a time when banana peels were not used as a comedic prop, but to fake personal injuries. In the late 1800s, flimflammers regularly went around suing railroads for the cuts and bruises they sustained from intentionally slipping on the banana peels they had pulled from their pockets and dropped in front of their own professionally clumsy feet. In fact as Ken Dornstein tells it in “Accidentally on Purpose: The Making of a Personal Injury Underworld in America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 1996), “banana-peeling” was so epidemic that railway employees worked tirelessly to find and bring these swindlers to justice.
Around the same time banana-peelers were stinking up train stations, receiving unexpected and deadly creatures in your banana bunches was a common occurrence. It was so frequent that in 1885 a weekly journal in New York called The Cook: A Weekly Handbook of Domestic Culinary Art for All Housekeepers helpfully sketched out some general banana tips and ended, almost as an afterthought, with this warning: “But take care that no tarantulas, scorpions, or centipedes are hidden in the bunch as they very frequently are.”
To recap: I can blame bananas for the endless loop of personal-injury solicitations on television, and I can cast a jaundiced eye on the world’s most perfect fruit for adding to the country’s population of venomous creepy-crawlies. What’s next: Zombies?
You see, another reason why I’m standing picky and standing proud against bananas lurks deep within their mealy flesh: radiation.
There are many foods out there — carrots, beer and red meat, to name a few — that, when eaten, might score you a callback in a “Night of the Living Dead” revival because they naturally contain radioactive elements such as potassium, radium and uranium. Bananas, which are a solid source of potassium, happen to be a particularly radioactive food. Radiation poisoning occurs when a human has been exposed to 1,000 millisieverts of radiation. Because an average banana contains .00044 millisieverts, you would have to eat slightly more than 2 million bananas for it to matter.
So yeah, it’s true that a single banana contains a fairly low dose. But I’m still going to trot out that excuse when the non-picky try to force their breads, splits, Fosters, cream pies and repulsively christened Monkey Tails on me.
“No, thank you,” I’ll say, patting my stomach. “I’m watching my radiation.”
Lucianovic, a San Francisco Bay area food writer and editor, is the author of “Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate” (Perigee Books, 2012). She’ll join today’s chat: live.washingtonpost.com.