The banana is one of nature's most perfect foods, and also America's most popular fruit. This is a surprising fact because historically speaking it is a relative newcomer to our country. Before the turn of the last century most people in North America had never seen let alone eaten a banana. With the advent of modern transportation though, things have changed greatly. In 1985 the average per-person consumption of bananas in our country was 24 pounds, by 1998 it increased to 33 pounds. Bananas are high in fiber, vitamin C and potassium and like most other fruits and vegetables, bananas contain virtually no fat, cholesterol or sodium; they are also relatively low in calories. And with their high potassium and carbohydrate content, bananas are a great supplier of energy-the carbohydrates in bananas are converted into energy for your body within a mere 45 minutes of consumption.The word, "banana" comes from the Arabic banan, meaning finger, thus it's no coincidence that a bunch or cluster of bananas is often referred to as a hand. Interestingly, it's also believed that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was actually a banana; the Koran states that the tree of paradise is a banana tree. Technically though, bananas don't actually grow on trees, the large tree-like banana plant contains no wood fiber. A banana plant can grow as tall as thirty feet and yields only a single cluster of fruit; when harvested the entire plant is cut down and a new plant grows from the existing roots.Bananas are surprisingly versatile. They can be utilized in everything from the ubiquitous banana breads, to chutneys and garnishes on savory meals, and in the production of alcoholic drinks such as banana wine and beer -- there's even banana ketchup. It may sound like a rather odd concoction but banana ketchup is actually quite good as an accompaniment to grilled or sauteed chicken and pork, particularly when served with other Caribbean inspired cuisine. And the dense yet somewhat silky consistency of mashed bananas can actually replace a portion of the fats in sweet preparations (witness the banana bread recipe below).One of the more interesting legends surrounding bananas is that their skins are said to have hallucinogenic properties. Supposedly the skin contains a substance called bananadine, which when dried and smoked is rumored to cause hallucinations; this was apparently the inspiration for the song Mellow Yellow, by the 1960's singer-songwriter Donovan. Back in the Î70s, friends of mine, upon hearing of this proclamation, attempted this act -- the only mind-altering experience they said to have had was an incredible headache. I personally recommend consumption of bananas through ingestion, not inhalation. And another interesting yet trivial "banana fact" is that Elvis' last meal was a fried banana and peanut butter sandwich, though this was most probably not the cause of his demise.When purchasing bananas choose their ripeness according to your liking -- if you plan on eating them on the day of purchase, or possibly the next, look for bananas that are bright yellow with no apparent bruises. The more yellow the skin the riper and sweeter the banana; brown spots are not necessarily a sign of bruising-when bananas are fully ripe tiny brown spots will often appear on the skin. Purchasing them somewhat green will insure a longer shelf life. If your bananas are too green you can place them in a paper bag to speed the ripening process. To speed the ripening even further place a tomato in the bag with the bananas -- the ethylene gas, which is emitted from the tomato, is a natural ripening agent for bananas. If, on the other hand, they are ripening faster than they are eaten, they can be stored in the refrigerator but their skins will darken. Bananas are best stored at room temperature though, and hung from a hook. Setting them on a counter can encourage bruising.Sweet Banana ChipsHeat approximately 1/2 inch vegetable oil in a heavy skillet to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Peel a banana and cut it in half crosswise, then slice each half into 1/4 inch slices. Carefully slide the banana slices into the hot oil, do not overcrowd the pan. Cook the banana on both sides until they are golden brown and have shrunk considerably. Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove the banana chips from the oil to absorbent paper. When the banana chips have thoroughly drained, transfer them to a plate and sprinkle them liberally with granulated sugar. For crisp banana chips, allow them to cool for 5 minutes before eating.Banana Walnut BreadYield: 1 loaf* 2 eggs* 3 bananas, mashed thoroughly* 1 tsp. vanilla extract* 3/4 cup sugar* 2 cups all purpose flour* 1 tsp. baking soda* 1 tsp. salt* 1/2 cup chopped walnutsPreheat oven to 350 F.Using an electric mixer, combine eggs, bananas and vanilla. Add next 4 ingredients and mix thoroughly. Add nuts and mix again. Pour into a buttered loaf pan and bake 1 hour.Banana KetchupYield: 2 cups* 2 large ripe bananas* 1 1/2 cups water* 1/4 cup golden raisins* 1/2 small onion, peeled and chopped* 2 garlic cloves* 1/4 cup tomato paste* 3/4 cup cider vinegar* 1/2 cup dark brown sugar* 1/4 cup light corn syrup* 2 tablespoons dark rum* 1 teaspoons salt* 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice* 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper* 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon* 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper* 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmegPeel and slice the bananas and place them in a blender or food processor along with the water; puree until smooth. Transfer the banana puree to a saucepot (preferably non-stick). Without rinsing the blender, combine the raisins, chopped onion, garlic, tomato paste and vinegar; puree until smooth and add this mixture to the pot with the banana puree. Into the same pot, stir in the brown sugar, corn syrup, rum, salt, allspice, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg.Stir all of the ingredients together and bring it to a slow simmer over medium heat. Decrease the heat to a low simmer and cook the ketchup for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Stir the ketchup often, making sure the bottom and sides are scraped clean to avoid sticking.When the ketchup has reduced and thickened considerably, remove it from the heat and transfer it to the blender; puree the cooked ketchup for 20 seconds. Transfer the ketchup to an appropriate container and refrigerate for at least 1 hour -- cool completely before use. Banana ketchup will keep for up to two weeks, refrigerated and in a glass jar or plastic container with a tight fitting lid.