Malaysia, Yugoslavia, and Persia should all take a bow - but so should Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and a nameless shopkeeper.
Would you like some giant herb with your ice cream? Bananas don't grow on trees - they grow on plants that are related to lilies, orchids, and palms. The banana plant is actually the largest herb in the world. Horticulturists classify bananas as "starchy berries."
Until the 1870s, bananas were unknown in America. The fruit, which originally grew in Malaysia, had spread to India and China centuries before the Christian era began. After conquering India in 327 BC, Alexander the Great brought the banana west. These were not the large Dwarf Cavendish or Gros Michel bananas we know today. Early bananas were small. Arab traders thought they looked like fingers. "Banan" means "finger" in Arabic. A Portuguese Franciscan monk, Tomas de Verlanga, brought banana plants to the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo in 1516.
Bananas got to be big business in America not long after they were introduced at Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition of 1876. Bananas wrapped in tinfoil sold for 10 cents apiece. Soon merchants were establishing banana plantations in Central America and shipping the fruit to the United States. The United Fruit Company, which came to monopolize the banana business, grew so powerful that it virtually controlled the governments of some Latin American countries. (You've heard of a "banana republic"?) Part of the fruit's popularity was the fact that for a long time bananas, along with oranges, were the only fruits available in the winter.
The sweet sundae-topper has its origins in Yugoslavia and northern Italy. For centuries, merchants had used marascas - small, bitter, black wild cherries - to make a sweet liqueur. Part of the flavor came from crushed cherry stones, which have an almondlike flavor. Marascara cherries preserved in the cherry liqueur were imported into the United States in the 1890s. These maraschino cherries were an expensive luxury served at the finest hotels.
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