On Banana Pudding (and the best way to serve it!)

As any peanut butter lover will tell you (and Elvis in particular), sweet banana slices add just the right balance to a salty peanut butter sandwich. Well now picture swirls of nutty butter in your favorite banana pudding recipe. Actually, do more than picture it. Make it!

In honor of National Banana Day, we’re taking a closer look at the history of banana pudding and sharing ideas on how to incorporate peanut butter into your favorite banana pudding recipe. 

This classic spoonable dessert has strong Southern ties, but its history is a bit more complicated. Charleston-based food writer Robert Moss, has written quite a bit about the history of banana pudding. He found that while the dessert has a strong, genuine Southern identity that stretches back more than half a century, earlier versions go back even further. “The real question is not whether it's Southern, but when and how it got that way,” he wrote. 

Moss explains that the dessert arrived in the United States during the second half of the 19th century, when national and international trade networks turned once-exotic ingredients—like oranges, coconuts and bananas —into affordable and widely available domestic staples. 

A market for bananas arose when American businessmen hosted ad campaigns to drive demand for their unusual imports. As the supply of bananas and their presence in the American food system increased, writers, cooks and “domestic science” instructors came up with more and more ways to use them. Enter banana pudding. 

Moss credits the first recipe to the Massachusetts-based magazine 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 recipe is actually a riff on the traditional English trifle—a layered casserole of custard, fruit, and sponge cake often topped with whipped cream. Moss explained that this link across the pond 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 main difference, of course, is the much more common—and convenient—use of vanilla wafers in place of sponge cake. Nabisco's marketing efforts for its Nilla Wafer cookie surely played a factor in helping to further spread the joy of banana pudding to the masses.

If the dessert originated in Massachusetts, then how did it become so intrinsically tied to the South? 

Moss says convenience played a large role. “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,” he wrote. “If you look across the slate of home economics specialties that evolved into Southern icons—ambrosia, pimento cheese, and, yes, banana pudding—you might note a common trait: They are well-suited for serving at large gatherings. They're easy to make, and, particularly, to make in bulk. They're also easy to dish out and serve. You can bring them in big pans or bowls, and you don't have to keep them warm. In fact, when served chilled, it offers a cool, sweet respite from the sweltering heat Southern states can experience.”

Any way you slice it (or spoon it), banana pudding holds a special place in the hearts of many, particularly those with strong connections to the South where it has become synonymous with a nostalgia for holidays, family, and oversized celebrations. 

There are many riffs on the traditional Banana Pudding recipe. Some call for store-bought ingredients like Nilla wafers, instant pudding mix, and Cool Whip, while others demand everything to be made from scratch. We say it really doesn’t matter as long as you add peanut butter to the mix. 

Our recipe for Peanut Butter Banana Pudding Parfaits calls for our White Chocolatey Wonderful, but you do you. Feeling like some texture? Add Crunch Time. Want a little touch of honey in there? Go for The Bee’s Knees. Just be sure to get going on this recipe the day before you plan on serving it so it has time to chill and set. Enjoy and let us know how it turned out! 

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