Although bananas are probably used as the butt of jokes more than any other fruit (you slip on banana peels; you can't hear because there is a banana in your ear; you have a nose that resembles a banana; comedians are sometimes designated as second bananas; and unstable countries are known as "banana republics"), there is no food quite so impressive as the banana, which came into its own during the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition.

At a booth, a banana plant displayed tattered leaves to entranced spectators while hawkers sold the fruit, attired in tinfoil, at 50 cents a finger.Although some of them were rotten, America's love affair with the banana had begun. Less than 20 years later, 1 1/2 billion pounds of bananas were imported a year to satisfy American banana lovers.

More recently, bananas have been praised for their medical assets. They contain a surprising amount of vitamin C and an extraordinary amount of potassium. Potassium, which is quickly absorbed by the skin, makes it possible to use a banana mask for tired faces. You can apply thinly sliced bananas directly to the face or make a cream of a third of a banana mashed and mixed with a tablespoon of honey.

With bulk and texture, the 120-calorie banana is a perfect snack. Although it is sweet, it contains no cholesterol and is low in sodium. For those who haven't tried it, a mashed banana blends perfectly with peanut butter in a sandwich. I also have a weakness for banana bread. I love banana nut ice cream, and I crave banana cream pie. There is also something terrific about a banana split, unless, of course, the banana is either rotten or green.

Unfortunately, ice cream stores are notorious for scrimping on bananas.

The ground banana root has been useful for a number of maladies as well, such as jaundice, abscesses, fever, headaches and measles.

Most people at some point in their lives have seen a trick banana. Invented by two enterprising New Yorkers, Lee Eisenberg and Tom Farrell, the trick reveals a sliced banana without actually peeling it. It involves enormous patience in threading a needle with about 2 feet of synthetic thread.

Banana skins are also ideal for shining tan shoes. You rub the inside of the peel against the shoe, then dry, then wipe away the coating, then buff. The tannic acid provides the great shine.

Politically, bananas have often been used in uncomplimentary ways. Former CIA director Allen Dulles, speaking of his role in the post-World War I Boundary Commission, said, "I don't know that I deserve credit for the shape of the country produced in Czechoslovakia. It looks something like a banana."

In 1975, New Hampshire Gov. Meldrim Thomson said upon hearing Panamanians wanted a say in canal operations, "Go pick your bananas, and we'll run the canal!"

On the other hand, Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th-century British prime minister, wrote in a letter from Egypt, "Oh, the delicious fruits that we have here and in Syria! Orange gardens miles in extent, citrons, pomegranates; but the most delicious thing in the world is a banana, which is richer than a pineapple."

Of course, it is possible to become fanatic about anything, and bananas are no exception. One woman from San Francisco is known to have given herself over so completely to the banana that her name became Anna Banana. Her walls are lined with banana objects, dolls, pillows, plaster casts and myriad drawings, while in her files she stores the story of the banana as recounted in articles and books in the major Western languages.

She founded the School of Bananology to proselytize "banana consciousness." Converts contribute a bit of banana lore before receiving a master of bananology degree from the Order of the Banana. One of the school's extracurricular activities is the Banana Olympics, which include a belly to belly banana race, an overhand banana toss and a banana song contest.

So don't knock the banana - it's here to stay.