Banana pudding has a rich and storied history. I can’t think of few things that ring the bells of nostalgia quite like banana pudding. Have you ever wondered is banana pudding southern? Today’s episode dives deep into how this favorite treat moved south. There are some interesting theories we will discuss.
My Food Memory!
The inspiration for this weeks episode came from a family group chat where my dad posted a picture and said, “this is the only way I’ll eat bananas.“ The picture contained a beautiful image I have a delicious banana pudding. Now this instantly took me back to earlier days growing up where my dad would often make Banana pudding. Of course, he would use the Nilla wafers as the base and pour over cheap banana pudding and sliced bananas and top it all with whip cream.
Fast forward a few years and I’m living in Tennessee. I found myself at a meat and three for lunch one day. Now for those of you who haven’t been to the south I’ll explain briefly what a meat and three is. This is a restaurant that serves a helping of protein with three vegetables. I should say they call them vegetables, but that is really a loose definition of what they actually serve. So what do I mean by that? Well for example, they call french fries vegetables. They call macaroni and cheese vegetables. And perhaps most shocking of all, they call banana pudding a vegetable.
My Kind of Vegetable
Now before everyone in the south sends me hate mail. Let me just say it was this particular place that called banana pudding a vegetable. And if this is what they mean when they say eat more vegetables, I can really support that.
So here I am in this restaurant about to eat my lunch and my coworker says I have to get the banana pudding. I decided that more vegetables wouldn’t hurt anything, so I quickly ordered a banana pudding. I was delighted to find out that this was exactly like the banana putting my dad made growing up. It was a little bit of nostalgia in the bowl.
I quickly dug in and deeply enjoyed that part of the meal. Banana pudding is huge in the south. You’ll find it on almost every restaurant menu. It’s everywhere! So today we’re going to dive into the history behind this classic southern dish.
The First Mention of Banana Pudding
The first mention of banana pudding in print is from 1878 in The New York Times. The first recipe for banana pudding in print seems to be from Good Housekeeping in 1888.
This recipe was super simple and super straightforward. The article said, “Make and chill a pint of custard, line a pretty dish with alternating layers of sliced sponge cake and sliced bananas, pour custard over the layers and top with whipped cream. This is essentially the recipe that we have today.
To Nilla or Not to Nilla
When did Nilla Wafers come on the scene? A humble woman from Bloomington, Illinois, shared her recipe for banana pudding with her local paper. This was the first known printed recipe for banana pudding using Nilla Wafers. The article was printed in 1921.
The National Biscuit Company, or Nabisco as we know it, decided to capitalize on this opportunity. They began printing recipes for banana pudding on boxes of Vanilla Wafers in the 40s.
In 1967 Nabisco shortened the name to Nilla Wafers. The recipe remained on the box.
Banana Pudding Comes to the South
To this point, the history of banana pudding has been tied to the northeast and the Midwest. How on earth did banana pudding become a cultural icon in the south?
It seems to be the media that began to put the southern spin on this classic dessert. In 1933 a news column posted a recipe for “Southern Banana Pudding.” The southern twist was frying the bananas before adding them to the dessert.
I’ve been going through my grandma’s recipes and any time she calls out something as being “southern,” it usually means additional butter or frying in some way. So I understand this southern twist.
Serious Eats did a fascinating analysis on this idea of journalists declaring banana pudding a Southern dessert. They ran a text search through online newspaper archives. What they showed is that banana pudding started the 20th century with no Southern identity. 17.89% of references in the 1900s and 10.81% of the references in the 1910s appeared in Southern newspapers. In the 1920s, those numbers jumped to 39.56% of the references.
Between the 1930s to the 1950s the percent of references hovered steady around 50%. By the 1980s they had risen to 83.78% of all printed references in the news.
Why the South?
But why the south? No one really knows. Common theories range from bananas running through the ports of New Orleans to it was a cool dessert that didn’t require heating up the oven in summer. None of those hold much water though.
The most plausible theory I came across is simply that it is cheap and easy to make in a large group of people. It is virtually the same level of effort to make banana pudding for 2 people or 20 people. In the south families gather for a variety of events. It is a huge part of the culture. It makes sense that a cheap and delicious dessert would have some real staying power.
So while we don’t know why it took off in the south, we can be grateful that they embraced it. This has kept this cherished banana dessert alive and well.
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