This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.
My grandmother—who is from Rincón, Puerto Rico—taught my mother, from Long Island, how to fry plantains. I grew up eating them, coveting them, tossing them into my mouth covered in salt while they were still too hot. Back then, they were fried in vegetable oil and tossed in table salt. Today, I cook them in coconut oil and sprinkle them with flaky sea salt. I became deeply invested in the origins of my food somewhere along the way, but never did I ask where my plantains came from or how they were harvested—I didn't want to risk the fallout. At the Key Food around the corner from my Bushwick apartment, you can get 15 of them for $1, so it's always felt like someone must be losing out on what, on the surface, is just a good deal in a heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood.
On the island and in the diaspora, the plantain, plátano, or green cooking banana is both staple food and symbol. It's eaten across Latin America, but is most prevalent on the Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean. What differentiates plantains from the ubiquitous Cavendish bananas is starch, making them something of a far more flavorful potato—subtly sweet, hearty, with a vague hint of banana. When they're green and dense, they can be sliced and fried into chips, or made into mofongo or tostones. Mofongo is mashed fried plantains cooked with olive oil, broth, and garlic, often with pork added; they're then formed into a small dome shape and filled with the protein of your choice. Tostones are made by frying big chunks of plantain, flattening them, then frying them again; they get even more delicious if you pour mojo de ajo, a garlic sauce, over them. In Venezuela, patacóns are sandwiches in which two thinly pounded tostones act as bread. When plantains are yellow and soft, on their way to black (which is the only time they can be eaten raw), deep-frying them briefly brings them to caramelized perfection. Fried sweet plantains serve as the most common introduction to the fruit; they're often on the menus at Mexican restaurants, topped with queso fresco.
Despite their deliciousness and popularity throughout Latin cuisine, it's near-impossible to find organic or fair-trade ones in stores, whether you shop at Key Food, Whole Foods, or your local co-op.
Fair-trade designation is particularly important to bananas, plantains included. At the end of the 19th century, Dole and Chiquita began importing them from Latin America and selling them in the US at artificially low prices, growing them through tight control of the land and workers, aided by corrupt governments. Countries exploited for private, corporate gain came to be called "banana republics," after the specific behaviors of those in control of the banana trade.
In Colombia, in 1928, the United Fruit Co. (which later became a part of Chiquita) allegedly ordered the killing of strikers in a church square that is known as "the banana massacre." And some 80 years later, in 2003, Chiquita admitted that it had paid $1.7 million to the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia to protect its operations. According to the British nonprofit Banana Link, as of 2011, major corporations without any fair-trade-certified products controlled 75 percent of the international banana trade. Exposed to agro-chemicals and intense heat, plantation workers are usually in the field ten to 12 hours a day, six days a week, and still aren't paid a living wage—to do so would increase the price of fruit that, despite traveling thousands of miles to the US, continues to be sold more cheaply than locally grown apples.
Dan Koeppel explored the history of the banana trade at length in his 2007 book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, and when asked specifically about plantains, he says the lack of organic, fair-trade ones on the market is an issue of demand: "There are no organics because it's not a huge commercial category," at least in the US. While they're fairly well-known on the East Coast, they're considered even more niche in the rest of the country. According to Koeppel, Dole and Chiquita have capitalized on the growing desire for the USDA Organic label when it comes to bananas, but it hasn't moved into plantains because "they believe those buying them won't care, because they're expected to be cheap." A representative for Dole, when asked whether they have plans to import organic plantains, says, "We don't hear about these things until they're in motion. At this point, it's just organic bananas." Chiquita did not return my request for comment as of press time.
It has become relatively easy to find a straight-up Cavendish banana with a fair-trade sticker despite the big companies—whether it be one from Fair Trade USA, Whole Foods' proprietary "Whole Trade," or the worker-owned co-op Equal Exchange. As Koeppel notes, it's an issue of demand, and of audience. The plantain isn't eaten widely among the traditionally affluent (i.e., white) populations expected to want to pay a premium to feel better about what they consume. The difficulty of finding ones you can be assured were grown ethically is indicative of a blind spot in the movement toward equitable trade and undoing the damage wrought by major corporations in banana farming and importation.
At the Bushwick Food Co-op, not too far from the Key Food where I can get 15 for $1, they sell Equal Exchange bananas but very rarely carry plantains, despite the neighborhood's demographic—though, it's not for lack of trying. According to manager Amanda Pitts, they've been able to occasionally stock organic plantains through their produce distributor, who in turn gets them from California-based Organics Unlimited. But they're currently totally unavailable. "Whenever we've had them, it took two weeks to sell the case," Pitts told me, proving the demand is all too important in terms of ensuring the presence of organic.
Jessica Jones-Hughes of Equal Exchange—whose site, beyondthepeel.com, is dedicated to how conventional bananas are unjustly farmed and sold—says they don't also sell plantains because "You have to buy a 40-foot container carrying 40,000 pounds of bananas, and sell that in a week, and the market for alternative bananas is already quite small." About 10 percent of bananas imported into the US are organic, and of those, just 2 to 3 percent are fair trade. She and a representative of Fairtrade America, Ann Brown, say that in Europe there is a much bigger demand for fair-trade items, but the only fair-trade plantains Brown had heard of were plantain chips from Ecuador that are sold in the UK and France. If you Google "organic, fair-trade plantains," you find that you can ship them wholesale from South Africa, but you need to buy the same 40-foot containers Jones-Hughes noted.
It's true that not too long ago, you could only find bananas that you knew were harvested in overworked, underpaid conditions. Like chocolate, coffee, avocados, and other foods that have become dietary staples but are impossible to source locally, the only way we can have peace of mind about banana and plantain sourcing is through this third-party labeling. The basic fact of making organic and fair-trade fruit available next to their conventional counterparts is necessary for the questions they force us to ask ourselves about the origins of our food, even if price or indifference win out in the end.
While I don't my buy bananas from the major corporations, I often find myself holding a plantain carrying a sticker from the fruit giants. "Product of Guatemala," it tells me, and I wince at what that could mean for the person who picked it. But I go ahead and fry it the way my mom did, the way my grandmother taught her.