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Book cover for The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King

Author: Rich Cohen

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Biography

Themes: Bananas, Business, Biography

Format: Paperback

Finished: January 5, 2019

Purchase link

A wild tale of grit, power, deceit, careful planning, attention to detail, and bananas.

I didn’t know about Samuel ZeMurray until my friend Ryan Ferguson recommended this book to me. On one hand, there is a lot to admire about him: His perseverance, grit, planning, management, and focus on bottom-up operations. On the other hand, he seemed to have no issues having people killed and hiring mercenaries to overthrow governments to make his cutthroat pricing possible.

The author puts too much emphasis on ZeMurray’s Jewish faith throughout the story, when in reality ZeMurray didn’t turn to his faith until late in life. You can tell the author clearly admires ZeMurray and is trying to weave the “great man” narrative- it got in the way.

I actually ran into someone on the subway who was reading this at the same time I was reading it. When I asked him what he thought, the first thing he said is, “I question the author’s perspective, but there is a lot of interesting history in here I didn’t know.”

There is a ton of great info about bananas, the banana trade, and bitter corporate wars that shaped the names Chiquita and Dole, which we see in all of our homes today.

One of the most interesting things to me is that we no longer know the banana that made United Fruit famous: Big Mike. It got wiped out by a blight. All bananas are essentially clones of a single corm, so it makes them very vulnerable to disease.