Like Its Complicated History, Banana Pudding Has Many Layers
The best way to make it depends on who's cooking at your family reunion.
Layers of silken custard, sliced bananas, and some manner of vanilla baked good come together to form a dessert greater than the sum of its parts. Banana pudding is a sweet treat loved by many, its legion of fans often possessing very strong opinions about what exactly makes the dish so great. However one chooses to construct banana pudding—served hot or cold, layered with Nilla wafers or sponge cake, topped with whipped cream or meringue—the classic dessert is as American as apple pie.
Like our country, banana pudding was spurred by capitalism and is linked to the South—warranted or not. And though Americans lay claim to the confection, the fruit isn't native to the land, and we weren't the first to layer its ingredients in such a manner.
Bananas, like many of the people that now call this land home, arrived on our shores via ships. Before the Civil war, a few bunches made their way here and there, up and down the Atlantic coast from the West Indies. With advances made in boats and shipping, more and more of the fruit was shipped in from the Caribbean and Central America. American businessmen bet "that American consumers could be taught to develop a taste for the exotic fruit" and thus created a market for bananas to turn a profit, hosting "decades of aggressive ad campaigns" to drive demand. As the supply of bananas and their presence in the American food system increased, cooks came up with more and more ways to use them.
Enter banana pudding.
It's simply a riff on a trifle, a traditionally English dessert with layers of custard, fruit, and sponge cake that is often topped with whipped cream. It is this link across the pond that also potentially helps explain the etymology of the concoction. As a stickler for words and their meanings, I was always confused by the fact that something called "banana pudding" typically used a vanilla pudding instead of one with the flavor of the fruit. However, I now realize the use of "pudding" is perhaps just another carryover from the British and their use of the word to refer to any dessert.
The first mention of banana pudding seems to be from 1878 in a New York Times column called "Information Wanted." As Robert Moss wrote in his article for Serious Eats, the first recipe appears to be from Good Housekeeping in 1888. "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," Moss writes. And this, more or less, is the version that remains the status quo today.
The main difference, of course, is the much more common—and convenient—use of vanilla wafers in place of sponge cake. This started happening around 1920, and in 1921, Mrs. Laura Kerley from Bloomington, Illinois, shared the first-known printed recipe for the dessert utilizing cookies in her local paper. Seeing a business opportunity, the National Biscuit Company took advantage of banana pudding's popularity and started printing a recipe for the dessert on Vanilla Wafers boxes in the 1940s. (They officially became "Nilla Wafers" in 1967.) Nabisco's marketing efforts for the cookie surely played a factor in helping to further spread the joy of banana pudding to the masses.
Yet the dessert's link to the American South is less clear, particularly given that banana pudding's earliest recipes came from Massachusetts (where Good Housekeeping was based) and central Illinois. While theories abound, I and others believe the connection lies in the dessert's ability to feed a crowd and the region's penchant for large gatherings. Whether making banana pudding for two or 20, the time and level of effort required is roughly the same. And when served chilled, it offers a cool, sweet respite from the sweltering heat Southern states can experience.
Banana pudding holds a sacred place in the hearts of many, particularly African Americans and those with connections to the South. Just its mere mention has the ability to conjure fond memories and bring a smile to one's face. Growing up, while we’d regularly have cakes, pies, and other desserts in the house, just because, banana pudding meant gathering and celebration. As one person on Twitter put it, "[The] first thing that comes to mind when I think of banana pudding is a family reunion."
It's this nostalgia and connection to family that make people so staunchly adamant about the dessert and the "right way" it is prepared.
Some say you can use store-bought ingredients: Nilla wafers, sliced bananas, instant pudding mix, and Cool Whip on top. Others prefer everything to be made from scratch: a custard cooked on the stovetop, cream or meringue whipped by hand, and even cookies you baked yourself.
I say you can mix the two schools of thought by using boxed cookies with homemade custard (with cooked, almost caramelized bananas used to flavor it) and whipped cream that is served chilled. For those who prefer meringue, this recipe for Miss Myra's banana pudding should do the trick. Other variations I've come across include a baked pudding topped with marshmallows, no topping at all such as in this recipe for banana pudding-flavored with banana liqueur with a vanilla wafer crumble, or this banana pudding recipe from Kemuri Tatsu-ya that "gets its flavor from rich miso caramel, crunchy graham cracker topping, and perfectly smooth pastry cream." For a small change to transform your banana pudding-making forever, the owners from Hot Chicken Takeover in Columbus, Ohio, recommend "Always toast your wafers (Nilla, or otherwise) with real butter and a pinch of sea salt before crumbling and placing on top of the chilled puddings, keeping this essential component nice and crisp for contrast."
But regardless of how it's assembled or served, any nanner pudding is better than none.