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MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
With Passover and Easter upon us, it's that time of year when you think of matzah and chocolate bunnies, but in Central America, they're thinking about bananas. At plantations, it's a tough time of the year. It's Semana Santa or Holy Week, and plantation workers take time off to celebrate. The problem is they either anticipate the week off and pick the bananas early, in which case the fruit is too green, or they wait and pluck the fruit when they return, too late and too yellow.
In reading the Miami Herald this morning, we learned that there's a science to ripening bananas and we're now going to talk to one of the masters. His name is Pat Foster, and his official title is Director of Ripening for Chiquita Brands International. The paper actually referred to him as the banana gasman. We'll explain that in just a minute, but first, Mr. Foster, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. PAT FOSTER (Director of Ripening, Chiquita Brands): Well, thank you very much for having me.
NORRIS: So you're the person who actually determines if the bananas that you see at the local grocery store are a nice, ripe shade of yellow or some various shade of green. How do you actually do that?
Mr. FOSTER: Well, I have a staff of ripeners throughout the country, actually, that I oversee, and we use a specific recipe to obtain the color.
NORRIS: A recipe?
Mr. FOSTER: That's the best way to describe it.
NORRIS: So you expose the bananas to some sort of gas? I guess that's where your name comes in?
Mr. FOSTER: Yes. Actually, it's a natural product. You know, when you hear the word gas, everybody gets very nervous, but, actually, it's alcohol that's atomized and turned into ethylene. And ethylene is a product that is produced by the fruit naturally when it's in its ripening state, so, basically, what we're doing is given this full room of fruit the message, hey, it's time to start ripening by exposing it to ethylene.
NORRIS: So you talked about that recipe. I guess the ingredients there are time, temperature and the length of exposure. How do you get that just right?
Mr. FOSTER: Well, it's basically something that the ripener has to learn from experience. It's not something that you do by the numbers. You receive the product, you do an inspection of the product, you cut it open, you smell it, you look at the peel-to-pulp separation and you determine the freshness of the fruit, and then you develop a procedure to ripen that product so that it will be acceptable to the consumer.
NORRIS: So since you're the man whose finger rides that dial and determines how much gas you actually use in the ripening process, what's the right shade? What color should they be when they leave your warehouse?
Mr. FOSTER: We like to see fruit at retail, that is, on the shelf a nice, good amount, more yellow than green, and just with green tips or green necks on the fruit.
NORRIS: So would that be sort of a canary yellow, the color of sort of a yellow post-it pad?
Mr. FOSTER: Canary yellow would be a good description.
NORRIS: And how do you deal with this Semana Santa, this Holy Week slowdown in Latin America?
Mr. FOSTER: Well, we try to bring in as much product as we can prior to the holidays, and then right after the holidays, we'll have more product arriving.
NORRIS: But if it comes in too early, it might be too green. If it comes in too late?
Mr. FOSTER: Well, that's where the skill of the ripener comes in. He has to know how to process the fruit to compensate for that.
NORRIS: So you are an expert in this. If you bring home bananas and they're a little bit too green for your liking, what's the best way to get them to just the right color once they are actually in your kitchen, home from the grocery store?
Mr. FOSTER: What I usually do if they're a little too green, I'll put them in a brown paper bag, not a plastic bag, and if there's an apple, a nice, ripe apple around, I'll put that in the bag with it, and then the ethylene that's being produced from the apple will help to trigger the fruit to continue its ripening process.
NORRIS: Well, Mr. Foster, thanks so much.
Mr. FOSTER: Thank you very much.
NORRIS: That's Pat Foster, Director of North American Ripening for Chiquita Brands International.
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