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By Kathleen Purvis
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — 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 cakelike 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, N.C., 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 Carolina's 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 composition at the University of South Carolina Lancaster. A native of Gaston County, he likes to track the origins of things like fish camps and pimento-cheese burgers.
He wrote the puddings entry for the "Foodways" edition of "The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture." He got the assignment after he and editor John T. Edge went to see Southern Culture on the Skids and heard their song "Banana Puddin'."
"I married my wife partly based on her ability to make banana pudding," Criswell said. "A good Southern boy, I had to marry somebody who could cook like my mother."
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 said. "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.
But as I tested recipes, I noticed how my movements were so much like my mother's on that long-ago Sunday afternoon.
Placing vanilla wafers in a pattern, slicing and arranging banana circles just so, I wondered if maybe that's why banana pudding stayed so much at home here. You can put it together in the morning, before you get too busy. It doesn't take a lot of fuss.
And in the evening, you have something cool and sweet that almost everybody likes.
Maybe that's explanation enough.
COOL, CREAMY TRIFLE HAS MANY VARIATIONS
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.
BEST EVER BANANA PUDDING
• 1 1/4 cups light brown sugar, packed
• 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 1 (11- or 12-ounce) can evaporated milk, shaken well
• 1/2 cup water
• 3 eggs
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 3/4 cup butter
• 1 (12-ounce) box vanilla wafers
• 4 to 6 ripe bananas
• Topping: Whipped topping, 2 cups heavy cream beaten with 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, or about 1 cup vanilla wafer crumbs
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.
This recipe, using pound cake rather than vanilla wafers, is from "Classic Southern Desserts," by the editors of Southern Living (Oxmoor, 2010). This version was inspired by one served at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room in Savannah, but it is classic. The yolks are used in the custard, while the egg whites are used for the meringue. In testing, we found the custard stays soft, but is soaked up by the pound cake.
POUND CAKE BANANA PUDDING
• 4 eggs
• 4 cups half-and-half
• 1 1/4 cups sugar
• 3/4 cup cornstarch
• 3/4 teaspoon salt
• 3 tablespoons butter
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 1 (1-pound) all-butter pound cake, such as Sara Lee
• 4 large ripe bananas, peeled
• 3/4 cup sugar
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Separate the eggs. Cover the egg whites and refrigerate for the meringue. Whisk together the egg yolks with the half-and-half, sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan and place over medium-low heat. Cook, whisking constantly, for 13 to 15 minutes. (Note: In testing, we had to start the pudding over medium heat and cook it longer, for closer to 25 minutes, before it thickened. Reduce the heat to low once it begins to thicken, so it doesn't scorch.)
Remove from heat and add butter and vanilla, stirring until the butter melts.
Cut the pound cake into 1-inch cubes. Lightly grease a 3-quart round baking dish.
Place half the cake cubes in the bottom of the baking dish, pushing them together so they fit snugly. Slice 2 bananas and place the slices in a layer over the cake cubes. Pour half the pudding over the cake and bananas. Repeat with remaining cake, bananas and pudding. Cover and chill at least 6 hours. (The pudding needs to be cold before adding the meringue.)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Combine 3/4 cup sugar and 1/8 teaspoon salt in a small bowl and set aside. Beat the egg whites and vanilla at high speed with an electric mixer until foamy. Beat in sugar mixture 1 tablespoon at a time. Beat 2 to 3 minutes, until stiff peaks form. (When you lift the beaters, the meringue will form peaks that stand straight up. Don't overbeat, or the meringue will break down.)
Spread the meringue over the chilled pudding, completely covering. Working all over the top, push a spoon into meringue and lift quickly, to form peaks.
Bake 15 minutes, or until the meringue is golden brown on the peaks. Serve immediately.
This recipe is adapted from one by Samantha McCluney Criswell of Lancaster.
SIMPLE BANANA PUDDING
• 2 large boxes instant vanilla pudding
• Milk to prepare pudding
• About 1/4 cup sour cream
• Frozen whipped topping, thawed, divided
• 6 ripe bananas
• 2 (12-ounce) boxes vanilla wafers
Prepare the pudding in a large mixing bowl, using the amount of milk called for on the box. Using a wide rubber spatula, fold in the sour cream and 1/4 cup whipped topping until no traces of white remain.
Peel bananas and slice in rounds. Gently stir banana rounds into the pudding.
Place a layer of vanilla wafers on the bottom of a serving bowl. Top with about half the pudding and bananas. Top with another layer of vanilla wafers. Top with remaining pudding and bananas.
Spread remaining whipped topping over the top. Refrigerate until chilled. Serve cold.