Why South loves banana pudding

This banana pudding from Savor Cafe & Catering in Charlotte, N.C., is a favorite among customers.

CHARLOTTE -- A summer Sunday food memory, circa 1974: I'm sitting at the table watching while my mother makes banana pudding and my older sister discusses her latest date.

One talks about the frustrations of romance. The other listens, nodding, while patiently, steadily, assembling dessert.

Lining the casserole dish with vanilla wafers from a box. Slicing bananas and placing the circles just so. Spooning on a layer of vanilla-flavored pudding.

Building the layers until the casserole is full, then covering it with a final layer of fluffy, white whipped topping.

The whole thing goes in the refrigerator to wait until supper, while the wafers soften into cake-like layers and the banana flavor tinges both pudding and cookies, melding into something that will be cool and sweet on a hot night.

Watching them, I absorb a little about dating and a little about listening, and a lot about taking time for both comfort and desserts.

Only in the South

Recently, I set out to explore banana pudding. I looked into instant puddings vs. homemade custards, into vanilla wafers vs. fancier fillers like pound cake or ladyfingers.

I tried meringue toppings, whipped toppings and simple sprinklings of crushed cookies.

I fell in love with the banana pudding at Savor Cafe in Charlotte, where Lori Pearson's vanilla wafers are homemade and the perfectly browned meringue is an impossibly smooth marshmallow creme.

Along the way, I wrestled with a mystery. Every source agrees that banana pudding is quintessentially Southern. It's so connected to this part of the world that if you join the Southern Foodways Alliance this year, you'll get a sticker declaring you a "Proud Citizen of the Banana Pudding Republic."

At Carolinas barbecue restaurants, if dessert is offered at all, it is usually banana pudding. It can be made cheaply in big quantities and turned out in sheet pans or disposable aluminum trays at church potlucks.

But why is banana pudding Southern? Bananas are everywhere. In the U.S., they're ahead of apples and oranges as the most consumed fruit. Nabisco's Nilla Wafers are sold nationally, with the recipe on the box.

But banana pudding isn't everywhere. I took an informal poll, checking with food-writing colleagues in four Northern cities.

In Milwaukee, banana pudding doesn't show up at all, just banana cream pie. I had to explain the difference to my source there. In Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, food editors had only seen it in African-American-owned restaurants.

It is widespread in Chicago, where many Southern black families moved in search of work during the Depression. But it is still strongly connected to family events, particularly potlucks.

Tracing it back

One piece of the puzzle is the bananas. Starting in the late 1800s, they were imported through Southern ports, particularly New Orleans.

Before the late 1960s, when Standard Fruit moved to Gulfport, Miss., so many bananas came ashore in New Orleans that watching the unloading became a tourist attraction.

Author Joe Dabney offers another Southern connection in his 1998 book "Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread and Scuppernong Wine."

Starting in 1880, bananas shipped from New Orleans by the Illinois Central Railroad were stored in Fulton, Ky., before they were dispersed across the country.

The town used to celebrate its role as "banana capital of the world" with a yearly banana pudding festival, a tradition that continued into the 1990s.

Stephen Criswell teaches folklore and English com- position at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster. A native of Gaston Coun-ty, he likes to track the ori- gins of things like fish camps and pimiento-cheese burgers.

Criswell couldn't say why banana pudding mostly stayed here. But he had theories on why it started here. He noted the strong resemblance between banana pudding and English puddings, which were generally anything that combined soft cake and custard.

"Technically, it's not a pudding, it's a trifle," Criswell says. "And it's sweet. There's that Southern fondness for excessive sweetness."

The South has always had strong Anglo-Celtic ties that turn up in the origins of recipes -- particularly desserts that don't call for long baking times in the sultry heat.

Criswell also noted how easy it is to make banana pudding if you take shortcuts.

You can fall back on instant pudding and whipped topping instead of custard and meringue. And mostly, people won't complain.

Breaking it down

Custard: It can be vanilla pudding from a box, but a simple custard is better. It's easy to make, and the texture is creamy, not gummy.

Bananas: They have to be ripe, with brown spots speckling the peel.

Fillers: Vanilla wafers are traditional. As they soak in the pudding, they soften into cake-like layers. But cubed pound cake is good, and other cookies are possible.

Paula Deen has a popular version made with Pepperidge Farms Chessman cookies. Ladyfingers also show up in recipes.

Topping: Whipped topping is popular. Sweetened whipped cream is better. Best: Meringue, baked just until the fluffy top is browned but the pudding underneath is still chilled.

Church and community cookbooks are a great source of banana pudding recipes. In this one, adapted from the 1990 "Hopewell Heritage Cookbook" from Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, evaporated milk gives the pudding a light brown color and a rich flavor.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups light brown sugar, packed

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 (11- or 12-ounce) can evaporated milk, shaken well

3/4 cup water

3 eggs

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup butter

1 (12-ounce) box vanilla wafers

4 to 6 ripe bananas

Whipped topping; 2 cups heavy cream beaten with 2 tablespoons powdered sugar; or about 1 cup vanilla wafer crumbs

Directions

Whisk together brown sugar, flour, evaporated milk, water, eggs, salt and vanilla in a heavy saucepan or the top of a double boiler over a little simmering water. Add butter and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the butter melts.

Reduce heat to low and cook slowly, stirring often, until the mixture thickens and just starts to look a little curdled. Remove from heat and cool slightly.

Place a layer of vanilla wafers in the bottom of a 13-by-9-inch glass baking dish. Slice the bananas into rounds and place a layer of rounds on top of the wafers. Top with about half the pudding mixture, spreading to completely seal the wafers and bananas. Repeat layers, ending with pudding. Refrigerate until chilled.

Top with whipped topping, sweetened whipped cream or cookie crumbs.