How Banana Pudding Became a Southern Icon

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, unless otherwise noted]

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Lately I seem to be eating a lot of banana pudding out of Mason jars, and it isn't necessarily by choice.

That's how the sweet, gooey dessert has been served to me at a number of restaurants and catered events over the past year or two. Sometimes it's laid out in standard one-pint jars, each containing several servings that guests spoon onto a plate. Sometimes it's in cute little four-ounce jars holding a single serving—a banana pudding shooter, if you will.

I mean, shucks—what could be more authentically Southern than eating banana pudding in a Mason jar?

Now this is usually the point where I'm supposed to whip back the curtain and reveal that banana pudding really isn't Southern after all. That it was invented in New York City and given a Southern twang by Hollywood producers or self-promoting chefs or Army wives, or maybe a conspiracy among all of them.

As much as I would love to do that, I can't. 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.

Finding Southerness: The When and the How

There are various ways to identify when a particular food item becomes Southern. Recipes and references appear primarily in Southern newspapers and cookbooks. Diaries or travelogues—especially those written by visitors from somewhere else—record what are considered at the time to be the signature dishes of a particular place. You can also just look for the point when writers start calling the dish "an old Southern favorite" or, even better, when Yankees start asking, "What the heck is that? It sounds gross."

The "how" part is much harder to pin down. The story of banana pudding tracks very closely with that of another Southern icon we profiled earlier: ambrosia. Neither started out with a particular Southern identity. Instead, both originated as a sort of new fancy food item in the second half of the 19th century, when national and international trade networks turned once-exotic ingredients—oranges and coconuts in the case of ambrosia, bananas in the case of banana pudding—into affordable and widely available staples.

Both dishes were disseminated and popularized by writers and educators in the field of home economics (or, as it was known early on, "domestic science"), whose recipes and instructions appeared in cookbooks and syndicated newspaper columns that were read all across the country. Both desserts also both evolved from simple but rather elegant recipes into modern adaptations, incorporating the mass-marketed products of an industrializing food system. And at some point, like Wisconsin-born Tom Wopat getting the Dukes of Hazzard casting call, they were transformed into Southern stars.

A Modern American Dessert

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Of course, you can't have banana pudding without bananas, and Americans had no bananas until after the Civil War—or at least not very many. 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.

Though bananas were once found only in "the most fashionable fruit stores," the New York Graphic reported in 1874, "the banana has become a necessity in the fruit market. It is asked for at all seasons of the year....The poor as well as the rich are its purchasers." By the end of the decade over four million bunches of bananas were arriving in American ports annually, and New Orleans—thanks to its proximity to the new banana growing regions on the isthmus of Panama—enjoyed the greatest share of that trade. Imports surged to 12.5 million bunches by 1895 and 16 million by the turn of the 20th century.

It's not surprising that, in addition to just peeling and eating them, cooks started incorporating these still exotic but newly-affordable fruits into a variety of dishes and desserts. I've turned up a few passing references to banana pudding in the 1870s and 1880s. The earliest is a simple entry in a New York Times "Information Wanted" column in 1878: "A receipt for frozen banana pudding." (Receipt is the old term for recipe.)

By 1887, banana pudding was in regular enough rotation at the dinner table for it to appear in this knee-slapper:

Gourmets at a table d'hote: "This banana pudding is exquisite. It tastes just like strawberries." "And this strawberry shortcake is superb. One would think it was made of bananas."

Try not to split your sides, gentle reader.

I don't get late-19th century humor, either, but editors of the period apparently thought the gag was a humdinger, for they reprinted it in newspapers from Harrisburg to Oakland.

The first actual banana pudding recipe I've come across appeared in 1888, and it was not in a Southern periodical but in the Massachusetts-based Good Housekeeping. It's quite similar to a traditional English trifle, with bananas incorporated as the fruit. Make and chill a pint of custard, the recipe instructs, then line "a pretty dish" with alternating layers of sliced sponge cake and sliced bananas. Pour the custard over the layers and top with whipped cream.

Banana pudding recipes flooded the nation in the 1890s, appearing in hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks in 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, too.

Some substituted lady fingers for the sponge cake. Others omitted the cake altogether and called for tapioca instead of custard. Mary J. Lincoln, the famous Boston cooking teacher, put forth a unique version that consisted only of layers of sliced bananas sprinkled with sugar and lemon juice, and it was baked for 15 minutes in a hot oven then topped with meringue.

In 1893, the Boston Budget ran a recipe for a molded rather than layered banana pudding. It called for gelatin, orange juice, lemon juice, and sugar to be strained into a mold and, as it began to harden, six sliced bananas stirred in. Once fully set, it was turned out onto a platter and topped with whipped cream. Similar versions of molded banana puddings were quite common early on but, fortunately, faded out by World War II.

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A molded banana budding. [Image: Ukiah (CA) Dispatch Democrat (1900)]

Most of the early custard-based banana puddings were not baked, but some recipes for meringue-topped puddings called for putting the dish in the oven to brown the meringue. It seems some cooks took it further than that, and a minority of recipes called for baking the assembled dish in a moderate (350°F) oven for as long as 45 minutes.

By far the most lasting innovation in banana pudding-making occurred around 1920, when cooks started swapping out the traditional sponge cake and replacing it with a more convenient base: vanilla wafers.

The Industrial Wafer Revolution

A lot of folks have attributed the popularity of banana pudding to the marketing efforts of Nabisco, which today makes the popular "Nilla" brand of vanilla wafers and has long promoted their use in banana pudding. (As one online history puts it, "Nilla Wafers published the recipe on their box and a famous dessert was born.")

This explanation seems to entangle cause and effect. By 1898, when the New York Biscuit Company and the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company merged to create the National Biscuit Company, banana pudding was already a trendy, popular dessert. By 1900, the company, which soon became known as Nabisco, started selling vanilla wafers alongside dozens of other cookies, crackers, and biscuits, but it was another two decades before the wafers found their way into banana puddings. Individual cooks, not Nabsico, came up with the idea.

In 1921, Mrs. Laura Kerley contributed a recipe to the Bloomington, Illinois Pantagraph, for a banana pudding consisting of custard, a half-dozen sliced bananas, and one pound of vanilla wafers. That same year, the Atlanta Women's Club Cookbook opened its "Pastries, Puddings, and Dumplings" chapter with a custard banana pudding recipe from Mrs. F. A. Smith that incorporated two boxes of vanilla wafers. Though their custards differed—Kerley made hers with cornstarch and beaten eggs, while Smith used flour and just egg yolks—neither pudding was topped with meringue, and neither was baked.

Nabisco may not have come up with this promising use for its product, but they soon picked it up and ran with it. By the 1940s the company was publishing a recipe for banana pudding on the side of its Vanilla Wafers boxes—20 years after Mrs. Kerley's recipe. (And that's vanilla wafers, not Nilla Wafers. Nabsico didn't start using that brand name until the 1960s.) The same recipe appeared widely in its newspaper and magazine ads.

It's a quite standard custard-based version which calls for lining a baking dish with layers of vanilla wafers (Nabisco brand, of course) and sliced bananas, pouring custard over them, and spreading meringue across the top. Notably, though, the Nabisco recipe then calls for baking the dessert in a 325° oven for 20 minutes and concludes, "serve warm or chilled."

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A pre-Nilla box of Nabisco Vanilla Wafers.

Whether it was due to widespread marketing or just the convenience of using pre-made cookies (I suspect both played a factor), the 1950s and 1960s saw vanilla wafers steadily eclipse other banana pudding fillings like sponge cake, lady fingers, and bread crumbs.

Other pre-packaged food products started being subbed in, too. Instead of whisking their own meringue, cooks could spray on a layer of whipped cream from a can or, even more modern, a vegetable oil-based "whipped topping" like Cool Whip, which General Mills introduced in 1966. Rather than making a custard from scratch, some cooks began using a pre-packed instant pudding mix. In 1964, Jell-O released a banana cream flavored pudding and pie filling, and its ads for the new product trumpeted, "Now your Southern Banana Pudding can have golden luscious banana flavor all through." The industrialization of banana pudding was complete.

Banana Pudding Becomes a Southern Icon

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As the Jell-O ad indicates, somewhere along the way banana pudding became closely associated with the American South. That seems to have happened just after World War II. 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.

In 1933, a syndicated column offered a recipe for "Southern Banana Pudding," though it didn't explain what made it Southern. It's a layered sponge-cake and custard variety of pudding, though in an odd twist that I've not seen in any other recipe, the banana slices are fried before being layered into the pan.

After World War II, banana pudding's Southern identity really took hold, and by the 1950s, newspaper writers were routinely associating the dessert with the South. In 1956, for instance, a New York Age headline declared, "Deep South's Banana Pudding Tasty Treat." In 1959, the Oregon Statesman noted that banana pudding "has a touch of the South."

But how much can we trust a bunch of journalists on the Southernness of this dessert? To get a broader sample, I ran free-text searches in online newspaper archives and tabulated by decade the percentage of references to "banana pudding" that appeared in Southern newspapers versus ones outside the South. (I included Texas as Southern out of the goodness of my heart.)

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The rising Southernness of banana pudding.

The results were clear: Banana pudding started the 20th century with no particular Southern identity. Only 17.89% of references in the 1900s and 10.81% in the 1910s appeared in Southern newspapers. By the 1920s, though, the numbers were heading South, with 39.56% of references appearing in Southern papers. The ratio hovered around 50 percent from the 1930s to the 1950s, then rose to 73.92% in the 1960s and finally to a whopping 83.78% in the 1980s.

I'm hoping all these decimal points will obscure the wildly imprecise nature of this approach, but if nothing else the trends are consistent with the thesis that banana pudding started becoming strongly associated with the South in the 1950s.

Now, as to how it became associated with the South, I can only say this: I have no clue.

Writers have posited various explanations. Some note that a lot of bananas came through the port of New Orleans and reason that the fruit must have been widely available there and people naturally put them into desserts. But that had been the case since the late 19th century, and banana pudding doesn't have any sort of a particular New Orleans identity. Thanks to the national rail network, bananas were no rarer in Cleveland or Topeka than they were, say, in Montgomery or Atlanta.

Others point to Southerners' notorious collective sweet tooth and the fact that, unlike cakes or pies, you didn't have to use a hot oven in the heat of summer to make banana pudding. But it seems like these explanations would work for any number of dishes. Having witnessed the parade of sickeningly sweet midway snacks at Iowa state fairs and spent plenty of sweltering summer weeks in Lincoln, Nebraska, I can't see why those explanations wouldn't allow banana pudding to be a Midwestern icon, too.

Not to be left out of the speculation game, I'll offer one theory of my own. 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. 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.

Church picnics, funerals, holiday family gatherings, tailgating—these key Southern social events tie people together and create strong food memories, and dishes like banana pudding are ideal for serving at them. I suspect that this was an important factor in why the simple dessert became popular with Southern cooks and also why Southern diners remember it with such fondness.

Of course, Northerners and Midwesterners die and have funerals, too, and it's rumored they even play college football. Perhaps the real mystery is not why banana pudding became a Southern thing, but why Yankees let such a convenient dessert slip out of their repertoire.

Banana Pudding: A Uniter, Not a Divider

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Two banana pudding mysteries remain:

  1. How come you can't swing a dead cat in a Southern barbecue joint without hitting a bowl of banana pudding?
  2. And why don't people get all agitated about the many different variations of banana pudding they way they do about barbecue sauces or the kind of mayonnaise you use in your pimento cheese?

The first question is more involved and complicated than you might think, and we'll save it for a later installment. But let's go ahead and tackle banana pudding variations.

Do you used boxed pudding mix or a homemade custard? Is it vanilla-flavored or banana, and do you pour it over the top of stacked wafers and bananas or layer it in with them? Do you bake the whole thing in an oven or just assemble and chill? Do you top it with homemade meringue or canned whipped cream or whipped topping? Do you serve it immediately so the wafers are still crisp or let it rest a day in the icebox so everything sogs together?

All these differences are ripe for a food fight, but no one seems to be throwing anything. I've tried hard to find screeds where writers passionately defend their particular version of the dessert and excoriate anyone who uses a different technique. About the most pugnacious thing I've can come up with is this article from Slate called "You're Doing It Wrong: Banana Pudding." The "You're Doing It Wrong" part is just the title of a regular Slate cooking series, and this is about as heated as author J. Bryan Lowder can get on the subject of banana pudding: "After testing a number of recipes, I encourage leaving the Jell-O mix behind." Not exactly fighting words.

Highfalutin' Southern chefs roast their own locally-grown pimento peppers when making pimento cheese, and they incorporate champagne pears and cardamom into uptown versions of ambrosia. As un-gourmet as boxed vanilla wafers, instant pudding mix, and whipped topping is, though, few people seem to feel the need to "reclaim" or "elevate" or "modernize" banana pudding. Most serious cooks do make their own custard and meringue rather than using instant pudding and canned whipped cream, but that's still pretty much the same recipe Nabisco has been printing on their Nilla Wafers box for decades.

"Nobody argues much over banana pudding," Tommy Tomlinson observed in an article for North Carolina's Our State magazine. "Make it however you want. Just save me some."