From barbecue pork and fried chicken, to collards and okra, the South’s culinary heritage is based firmly in its agriculture.
Put plainly, we cook best what we grow best. But doesn’t mean that there aren’t exceptions. Take, for example, banana pudding. No Southern potluck, wedding, funeral, or summer cookout is complete without a fresh-from-the-fridge pile of custard, bananas, and Nilla Wafers.
According to The Post and Courier, banana pudding may be one of the first desserts in the South to feature an item completely unrelated to the area’s agriculture. So how did it come to be considered a Southern staple?
Americans didn’t have easy access to bananas—which are grown throughout the Caribbean and Latin America—until the invention of steamships in the late-1800s. These ships brought a steady influx of bananas to the U.S., and to New Orleans in particular, thanks to its proximity to the Panama.
Not surprisingly, more bananas meant more banana recipes. The first full recipe for banana pudding reportedly appeared in an issue of Good Housekeeping in 1888. The Post and Courier reports that the recipe featured custard and bananas alternated with layers of sponge cake and finished with whipped cream.
Other variations of the dish began popping up around this time. Some used lady madeleines to form the layers and meringue in lieu of whipped cream. But the banana pudding we know and love wasn’t born until 1921, when a home cook named Laura Kerley provided her recipe to Pantagraph in Bloomington, Illinois. Kerley’s recipe featured vanilla custard, bananas, and, for the first time, Nabisco Nilla Wafers. It was a nationwide hit, and by the 1940s, Nabisco added its official banana pudding recipe on their box, where it remains to this day.
As Charleston-based food historian Robert Moss explained in a 2015 piece for Serious Eats, at some point just after WWII, banana pudding became closely associated with the American South. As for how or why, nobody seems to have a good answer—except for Moss.
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“If you look across the slate of home economics specialties than evolved into Southern icons—ambrosia, pimento cheese, and, yes, banana pudding—you might note a common trait: They are well-suited for serving at large gatherings,” he theorized. “They're easy to make, and, particularly, to make in bulk. They're also easy to dish out and serve. You can bring them in big pans or bowls, and you don't have to keep them warm.”
We think mama would agree with that assessment, don’t you?