Ethnobotanist: No rain forest, no Bananas Foster

The last time you took a bite of Bananas Foster, what came to mind? The taste of the butter sauce, infused with just the right balance of cinnamon and vanilla? Or was it the delectable flesh of the banana, sautéed to perfection?

If you are Mark Plotkin, you’re likely thinking instead of the world’s rain forests and their role in sourcing the ingredients that go into the landmark dish.

“We’ve lost sight of it now, but there was a time when most of the bananas consumed in the United States were shipped through the Port of New Orleans. We were the gateway to South and Central America, and many of the culinary traditions and ingredients that are now part of our culture were sourced there,” Plotkin said.

An ethnobotanist and New Orleans native, Plotkin has made it his life’s work to collaborate with indigenous peoples in the daunting effort to conserve rainforests in the Amazon and protect the biodiversity that has bestowed our everyday experience with an astonishing bounty of gifts — cultural, culinary, and medicinal. He and his wife, Liliana Madrigal, founded the nonprofit Amazon Conservation Team in 1995 to further the work, and were named among 2008’s “Social Entrepreneurs of the Year” by the Skoll Foundation. Plotkin’s books include “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice.”

The idea for “Deconstructing Bananas Foster” came about at a fundraising event for the Amazon Conservation Team in New Orleans in October, when Dickie Brennan’s Tableau restaurant prepared a menu based on ingredients that originated in the rainforests and now appear in mainstream recipes.

Chef Ben Thibodeaux prepared a six-course meal that included chilled corn soup with mirliton, pork belly with caraway and okra, duck in a cacao-peppercorn-bourbon sauce, catfish with plantains, potato and chili, and sweet potato ice cream with cayenne-black pepper-Brazil nut brittle.

“I met Poppy Tooker for the first time that night, and she said we should do another culinary event to showcase the importance of the rainforest to New Orleans cuisine,” Plotkin said. “She was right — we agreed that the path to New Orleanians’ hearts is through their stomachs.”

The city takes pride in its culinary inventions like Bananas Foster, first prepared at Brennan’s Restaurant in 1951 by Paul BlangĂ© and named for Richard Foster, a friend of Owen Brennan’s and a fellow civic activist.

“Bananas, sugarcane and cinnamon all came from Southeast Asia,” Plotkin said. “The vanilla comes from the vanilla orchid that is native to tropical Mexico. None of the ingredients are native to North America.”

Each, however, has an intriguing history. Cinnamon is derived from the inner bark of trees native to current day Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma and the southwestern coast of India. It was imported by Egypt as early as 2000 B.C.

Likewise, sugarcane is native to Southeast Asia and was cultivated as early as 6000 BC. Christopher Columbus introduced it to the New World when he brought it with him to Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

Bananas — grown throughout the Caribbean and Central America — were first cultivated in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea as long ago as 10,000 years; they were brought west by Portuguese sailors in the 17th century.

New Orleans’ relationship with the tropical regions of the world and their indigenous flora has fascinated Plotkin since the first time he saw a banana growing in his hometown.

“It was in the Brulatour Courtyard in what used to be the headquarters of WDSU on Royal Street,” he said. “I was a kid and had never seen a live banana before. It felt like a little piece of the tropics poking through into my world.”

He added: “We think of New Orleans as an island. It’s surrounded by water and has even been under water. But the message from shamanic cultures is that everything is interconnected — that goes for New Orleans, too.”