Felipe Fernandez-Armesto once fondly recalled his days as a research fellow at St. John's College, Oxford. Sunday dinners at the college, however, presented something of a problem. On such nights, the fellows invited ladies, but also entertained the curate who had presided over evensong. In such mixed company, what could one possibly talk about?

"Since bananas always formed part of the dessert," Fernandez-Armesto later recalled, "the subject of the history and mythology of the banana could be relied on to recur frequently. Was it the fruit of paradise, as Islamic tradition has it? Where and when was it first cultivated? How diffused?... I have known rather a lot about bananas ever since."

[Fernandez-Armesto once enumerated 38 major theories to account for the development of agriculture (which, in its early stages, yielded a poorer diet than hunting and gathering), among them the "beer theory": the pleasures of drinking beer together persuaded people to settle down in sociable little villages, so that they could drink more beer together. (Forty per cent of the ancient Sumerian wheat harvest went to the distillery)... Among his less appetizing onservations: Some equestrian nomads tenderize raw meat by placing it under their saddles before a long ride; it is thus warmed -- seasoned, too, by the horse's sweat; and Nuer lovers in the Sudan show mutual affection by feeding one another lice freshly plucked from their heads...]

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