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Banana Pudding: Southern or Not?

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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banana pudding
Rodney Scott’s BBQ in Charleston serves Ella’s Banana Pudding, a house-made delicacy that makes a perfect ending to a perfect barbecue dinner.

The Sunday dinner plates have been cleared from the table and it’s time for the crowning touch: a glorious bowl of banana pudding. Beloved by South Carolinians, this dessert is a tradition in home kitchens and restaurants, alike. You’ll find it among the desserts at barbecue houses, meat-and-threes, picnics and potlucks across the state. And if you search the internet for a recipe, you’ll get overwhelming returns for “Southern Banana Pudding.”

So, this begs the question: What makes "naner puddin" Southern? The pudding? The bananas? The cookies? Hmmm. The history of the dish is rather vague on this matter. Considering bananas were not even available in this country until after the Civil War, the history is somewhat recent, too. Sometime during the late 1800s, the exotic fruit began arriving via steamship from the West Indies to various ports, including Charleston and New Orleans. Indeed, it’s tough to find recipes for anything “banana” before that time.

Writing for “Serious Eats,” Robert Moss cites an 1888 “Good Housekeeping” recipe for a trifle-like dish consisting of layers of sponge cake and sliced bananas with a pour-over of custard and topper of whipped cream. Soon thereafter, recipes for banana pudding began peppering the media of the day: cookbooks, newspapers and magazines. And guess what? Not a single vanilla wafer was to be found, though ladyfingers seemed to be a preferred substitute for the sponge cake.

Another trend was to top the banana pudding with meringue and give it a good bake in the oven for about 45 minutes. Hot banana pudding–it must not have been as good as its colder, more modern version or it would still be around, right?

 

banana pudding
Midwood Smokehouse in Columbia makes fresh banana pudding daily to satisfy your Southern sweet tooth.

Without a doubt, banana pudding as we know it–custard, bananas, cookies and whipped cream layered and well-chilled–was a gradually evolving recipe. Then the 1920s came roaring in, a time remarkable for many reasons–women won the right to vote, the first commercial radio station hit the airwaves and, of great culinary import, the earthshaking addition of vanilla wafers forever redefined the concoction called banana pudding.

It was a bit of marketing brilliance that led Nabisco to capitalize on that innovation in the 1940s. Now their Nilla brand is synonymous with banana pudding and few cooks assemble one without a box of the familiar cookies.

Instant pudding mixes also made a contribution, making preparation a cinch for busy cooks. For those with more time on their hands, however, such convenience is not a justifiable trade-off for the dessert’s rich, custardy flavor.

So, that brings us back to where we started. What makes banana pudding Southern? Short answer: Nobody knows. Mysteriously, banana pudding recipes began appearing in Southern publications in the 1950s, according to Moss. Banana pudding bottom line: It could have belonged to anyone who claimed it; we just claimed it more aggressively.

Among the reasons Southerners might have adopted banana pudding as their own:

  • Affordable ingredients
  • Easy preparation
  • Can feed a crowd
  • Tastes heavenly
banana pudding
At One Hot Mama’s in Hilton Head, shortbread cookies give classic banana pudding a rich twist.
Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.