The act of digging into a massive, endless tray and spooning out a hefty dollop of banana pudding fresh out of the fridge on a hot summer day is one of the great pleasures of living in the South.
From backyard barbecues to potlucks to weddings to funerals, banana pudding seems to always have a place at the table in the Midlands. While it’s almost impossible not to think about the Southern table in the summer without one, the otherwise less-than-Southern central ingredient does make one wonder how the dish ever even became a Southern thing.
The South has a deep culinary legacy rooted in the past, from grits to purloo, pulled pork barbecue to fried chicken, collards to okra. These are all things that are tied to the complicated history of the South, from the fertility of the land and coast that enabled the diverse agriculture to create these dishes to the significant influence that slavery had on taking those goods and creating what would become much of the region’s food culture.
Somewhere between all that history and agriculture came bananas.
Unlike most of the South’s dishes, banana pudding may be one of the first desserts featuring an item completely unrelated to the area’s agriculture. While the Americas knew what bananas were well before the late-1800s, the invention of steamships helped bring a larger, more steady amount of the fruit to the South, which fueled desire to make dishes around it. It became quintessentially Southern more due to proximity to the source than anything else, providing the South a greater claim to the dish, even though recipes could be found from up North as early as the 1880s.
One interesting thing about older cookbooks from the Columbia area and beyond is the lack of banana pudding recipes. It wasn’t until the 1980s that recipes started taking shape in local cookbooks. What existed instead were possibilities ranging from puddings named for British royalty such as Prince Albert to cream or pistachio puddings. Just as there were myriad odd ’50s and ’60s jello concoctions, there were just as many pudding creations.
Before bananas were in the equation, puddings had long been part of the American landscape thanks to British influence. Unlike the British though, they took far less savory forms and more sweet ones, like lemon custard or orange pudding.
Food writer and culinary historian Robert Moss indicated in his story “How Banana Pudding Became a Southern Icon” that the earliest entry he found on the actual banana pudding was in a 1878 New York Times column called “Information Wanted,” which plainly stated “A receipt for frozen banana pudding.” The first full recipe he and others credit was found in an issue of Good Housekeeping in 1888. The recipe featured custard and bananas that were alternated with layers of sponge cake and finished with whipped cream.
Variations of the dish became popular around this time, using different forms of cake and cookies, such as lady madeleines, to form the layers. Instead of whipped cream, meringues became popular. The marshmallow-esque layer of meringue added airiness to the dish, similar to lemon meringue or custard pies. A light broil to the soft meringue peaks provided a delicate, dramatic touch.
It wasn’t until well into the next century when the iconic, crispy, round wafer cookie produced by Nabisco would help form the banana pudding we know today. Invented by German confectioner Gustav A. Mayer on Staten Island, the biscuit recipe was sold to Nabisco in 1898 and renamed Vanilla Wafers.
It wouldn’t be until the 1920s that the perfect marriage between wafer and pudding collided.
Like many recipes in the 1900s, it was not a product of the company, but of homecooks. Moss cites that in 1921, Laura Kerley provided a recipe to Pantagraph in Bloomington, Illinois, featuring vanilla custard, bananas and the wafers. Recipes soon followed nationwide replicating the dish. By the 1940s, Nabisco picked up on the popularity and finally branded an official banana pudding recipe on their box, where it has remained ever since.
In the Midlands, most recipes found in local cookbooks over the years don’t stray far from the classic Nilla box version. The wafer recipe is so iconic and definitive-feeling that it may play a part of why there aren’t more recipes in local cookbooks. There are, however, a few subtle touches here and there — like in the 1987 South Carolina First Lady Cookbook, which features a banana pudding recipe topped with a mixture of sour cream and Cool Whip; underneath that is an ultrasimplified recipe that replaces the wafer cookie with slices of stale bread.
In restaurants, there’s no truer place to find banana pudding in the Midlands than in barbecue restaurants like Little Pigs Barbecue in the Northeast or Palmetto Pig downtown. One would be hard-pressed to find a dessert that compliments a large meal better than the cool, airy pudding.
Recently, Charleston-born newcomer Home Team BBQ has one of the most refined traditional versions in town in town, with a luscious, creamy homemade pudding and soft meringue that pleases with every bite. For a more upscale version, Bourbon’s memorable banana pudding comes with boozy Maker’s Mark-dipped wafers and a bold, dark caramel that overflows the glass, transforming the typically light dessert into something dramatically decadent.