Food for Thought: Banana Pudding
Banana pudding is a quintessentially Southern dessert, beloved by many for its delicately sweet flavor and modifiable recipe. But what makes this dessert a Southern staple? Bananas aren’t grown in the lower U.S. and Nilla Wafers (a traditional base for the dish) are sold internationally with the recipe right on the box. How did banana pudding and Southern cooking become synonymous?
What is Banana Pudding?
Banana pudding typically consists of layers of vanilla custard, cookies or cake, and sliced bananas topped with whipped cream or meringue. It is like traditional English Trifle, which is similarly made with layers of cake, fruit and custard.
The History of Banana Pudding
This dish rose to popularity after the Civil War, after improved steam ships were able to start bringing larger quantities of bananas to the U.S. from the Caribbean and Central America. Recipes for the dish began appearing in magazines and newspapers as early as 1888, in an issue of Good Housekeeping. The recipe called for a pint of chilled custard, sponge cake and (of course) bananas.
In the 1890s, various versions of the recipe flooded the nation. Some called for lady fingers instead of sponge cake. Others used tapioca in place of custard. One even called for gelatin to make the dish molded rather than layered.
One of the most lasting alterations to the dish came in the 1920s, when recipes started using vanilla wafers as a base instead of sponge cake. Nabisco capitalized on the trend by beginning to print a banana pudding recipe on their Vanilla Wafers box as early as the 1940s.
By the 1960s, Jell-O had begun selling banana cream flavored pudding and pie filling. Combined with pre-made wafers, this made the dessert almost comically easy to make and thus solidified it as a favorite in most kitchens.
Banana Pudding Today
Unlike other Southern staples, such as BBQ and pimento cheese, the ‘proper’ way of preparing banana pudding doesn’t seem to exist. There are consistencies, sure, but your favorite recipe ultimately boils down to preference. Do you like Nilla Wafers or ladyfingers? Do you prefer whipped cream or meringue? Refrigerated or baked? The variations are endless, but one thing always remains the same: the best banana pudding is the one right in front of you.
“Nobody argues much over banana pudding. Make it however you want. Just save me some.” – Tommy Tomlinson
There is even a National Banana Pudding Festival held every October in Tennessee. You can taste entries for the Best Banana Pudding in America, as well as visit a variety of food and craft booths. Proceeds from the event are donated to victims of natural disasters.
What Makes Banana Pudding “Southern”?
There is no obvious answer as to why banana pudding is a quintessential Southern dessert. The South is of course closer geographically to the source of bananas, but railroad transport made it no more difficult to get bananas in the North.
It seems the Southern association is due to a multitude of factors. For one, the dish requires no oven (at least in most recipes), so cooks could make it even in the sweltering summer heat. It’s also an extremely sweet dessert, and Southerners are known for their sweet tooths.
One article suggests that the dish is easily produced in large batches, making it the perfect addition to church picnics, family gatherings, tailgates, and other key Southern social events. Another writer ruminates that Southerners like to take shortcuts while cooking, such as using pre-made cookies or flavored pudding mix – which still results in a delicious dessert.
Tupelo Honey’s Banana Pudding Recipe
Now for what you’re really here for – our Tupelo Honey Banana Pudding Recipe! We make our own custard (no Jell-O shortcuts here) but we do use vanilla wafers mostly because we prefer the flavor. Our version requires overnight refrigeration so be sure to prepare it ahead of time if you plan to serve it at your next gathering.
Want the reward without the effort? Visit your favorite Tupelo Honey location and try our banana pudding today.