by Eric Wharton
My Recipe Book, constantly being added to
There were all sorts of desserts, too, mostly southern. But the hit of the evening was, as always, Bobby's banana pudding, made with pound cake instead of Nilla wafers. For the party Bobby fixed individual puddings, served in shot glasses, topped with whipped cream instead of meringue.
― Susan Rebecca White, "A Place at the Table"
Banana pudding has a strong, genuine Southern identity that stretches back more than half a century. Earlier versions of the dessert go back even further. The real question is not whether it's Southern, but when and how it got that way.
Americans had little or no bananas until after the Civil War. In the 1840s and 1850s, a few bunches made their way from the West Indies to Atlantic ports like New York and Charleston, but they were rare, perishable treats. That changed just after the Civil War, as faster steam ships and new trading firms brought in more and more of the fruit from the Caribbean and, increasingly, from Central America. By the 1880s, the port of New Orleans—thanks to its proximity to the new banana growing regions in Panama—enjoyed the greatest share of banana imports.
It's not surprising then that cooks started incorporating these still exotic but newly-affordable fruits into a variety of southern dishes and desserts. Banana pudding recipes flooded the nation in the 1890s. They appeared in hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks throughout all parts of the country.
The layered custard and sponge cake version was by far the most common, but there were plenty of other variants offered. The most lasting innovation occurred around 1920, when cooks started swapping out the traditional sponge cake and replacing it with a more convenient base: vanilla wafers.
Its a strange fact that banana pudding started the 20th century with no particular Southern identity. During the early 20th century, hundreds upon hundreds of banana pudding recipes were published in newspapers all over the country, and the dessert wasn't portrayed as Southern in any way. However, sometime after World War II, banana pudding's Southern identity took hold.
By the 1950s, banana pudding was routinely associated with the South. The reason why has never been fully known. However, it's well-suited for serving at large gatherings, easy to make in bulk, and easy to dish out and serve. So perhaps it's simplicity is what endeared it to Southern cooks, which was simply forgotten about by others.
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups sugar
2 cups milk
4 tbsp butter (1/2 stick)
3 tbsp flour
1 tsp vanilla
— bananas, sliced into medallions
— 'Nilla Wafers
Mix together eggs, sugar, and flour. Add milk and water and cook on low heat until thick. Add vanilla and cook for a few minutes more.
Pour over mixture of sliced bananas and 'Nilla Wafers.
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