Just what’s all the fuss about?

I thought I’d stumbled upon the Western North Carolina food story of the year when I came across a flier for a benefit concert in Madison County. In addition to touting the various uber-talented acts scheduled to appear, the flier promised—in big, bold letters—banana pudding.

Bananas for the pudding: “They know and I know they’re here for the pudding,” says Tomato Jam Cafe co-owner Charlie Widner of her customers’ affection for the confection. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Wow. A banana pudding worthy of top billing. Had I found the pudding to beat all puddings? Was this flier a map to the Southern sugar-hound’s holy grail?

Apparently not.

“There’s nothing special about that pudding,” hooted one of the event organizers when I asked—with a reverence that suddenly seemed embarrassing—about the starring dessert. “It’s Jello mix and Cool Whip. We just put that on there for the outlanders: They think it’s great.”

Banana pudding, the humblest of sweets, has lately acquired panache. It’s become the dessert du jour at countless fashionable restaurants; as the confection cognoscenti know, banana pudding’s the thing to have at Magnolia Bakery, the still-trendy Manhattan cupcakery. Aestheticians are pushing banana pudding facials, Krystal this year debuted a banana-pudding milkshake (and kept it on the menu long after it was slated to be replaced by an alternate flavor, citing customer demand), and the flavor’s showing up at more and more ice-cream counters.

And Asheville, it appears, isn’t immune to banana pudding thralldom: The local eateries offering the dessert say the dish is among their best-sellers.

“It’s our number one dessert,” says Maria Burril, owner of The Fiddlin’ Pig, where the pudding comes crowned with a heap of whipped cream.

Like pizza in its early days, banana pudding seems to meld universally beloved flavors (i.e. sugar and crunch) with an easy exoticism that Americans can’t resist. It’s an incredibly accessible dish, but remained, until recently, largely unknown in certain corners of the country.

“We have a lot of tourists who come in who’ve never heard of it,” Burril says. “I’m not sure how the servers explain it, but once people try it, they come back for it.”

Burril believes the dessert’s allure lies in its essential hominess: Krystal shakes and Tasti D-Lite scoops notwithstanding, traditional banana pudding isn’t considered a convenience item. “People don’t go out and buy it at the grocery store like they do brownies and cakes,” Burril says. “It’s a special dessert.”

But not by any stretch a sophisticated one. A banana pudding is an egg custard layered with banana slices and vanilla wafers. While nobody’s quite sure who first thought to stick cookies in the custard, a banana-pudding recipe was printed on the back of the Nilla Wafers box in the early 1940s, cementing its place in the American dessert pantheon. No less a Southern food authority than John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, in History (University of North Carolina Press, 1993) has called banana pudding his “all time favorite dessert.”

“When Southerners don’t have time to put together a banana cream pie, they make banana pudding,” write Matt and Ted Lee in their eponymous Southern Cookbook (W.W. Norton, 2006). “Banana pudding is always a popular potluck dessert, and in theory we love all the ingredients that go into it. But in reality, it’s often a disaster. The bananas go brown, the wafers get soggy, and the pudding is almost always artificial.”

As Dan Koeppel points out in Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World (Hudson Street Press, 2008), bananas are usually the first fruit sampled by toothless babies and the last fruit enjoyed by toothless oldsters. The typical banana pudding—mushy and unctuously sweet—seems designed to please either group.
But despite the cloying taste, or perhaps because of it, Americans continue to cling to the pudding and its namesake fruit. According to Koeppel, Americans every year eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined. Although bananas are relatively new arrivals to this continent, first appearing on the tables of wealthy Victorians (wrapped in foil to disguise the fruit’s bawdy shape), they’ve quickly earned the comfort-food mantle. And, in a deteriorating economy, what tastes better than comfort food?

Bananas are also cheap, another plus in recessionary times. Ann Lovell, curator of the Washington Banana Museum, suspects cost helped boost banana pudding’s popularity in the South. While many Asian and African diets feature riffs on banana pudding, the American incarnation of the dish is strongly associated with kitchens below the Mason-Dixon line.

“I have a friend from Texas, and it was always a big thing for her,” Lovell recalls.

Banana pudding is a staple dessert at North Carolina barbecue joints, a phenomenon that’s just plain odd.

“How did it get to be Southern?” wails Dale Reed, who encountered plenty of pudding while researching Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (University of North Carolina Press, 2008) with her husband and co-author John Shelton Reed. “That’s just a great mystery. It’s basically an English trifle without alcohol because we’re Baptists. But we don’t know why it became Southern.”

Puddings of all sorts have long been loved by Southerners, a predilection that gave rise to the somewhat controversial theory that the regional diet was shaped by poor dental hygiene. Although I have no hard evidence to support my conclusion, I suspect folks in Southern port cities like New Orleans and Mobile starting slicing bananas into the pot after banana barons began selling their too-ripe-to-transport fruit to local grocers.

One of the nation’s biggest banana booms occurred in Fulton, Ky., nearly astride the Tennessee line. In the 1920s, the little town was the spot where bananas carried by rail from the Gulf of Mexico required re-icing. Fulton became so banana-mad that in 1963 it inaugurated an annual banana festival, featuring—what else?—a 2,000-pound tub of banana pudding.

Fans of banana pudding seem to have an insatiable appetite for the stuff, as Tomato Jam Café‘s co-owner Charlie Widner can attest.

“They may order something else, but they know, and I know, they’re here for the pudding,” says Widner, 54, a native Indianan who grew up eating her mother’s made-from-scratch banana pudding. “Whether it’s two or four or six of them, they all order their own and it’s gone in a heartbeat.”

Widner’s banana pudding is stellar: an edible antidote to all the sugary, soupy puddings that make the banana-pudding craze so cryptic. Served in an ample white mug, the pudding has the rich, eggy hue of freshly made pancake batter. It’s dusted with powdered sugar, and anointed with a few plump blueberries. Even better, the wafers are merely splintered instead of crushed.

“I like my bananas toward the green side, so they don’t break down,” Widner explains, pausing to fill another banana pudding order, “and I keep those chunky pieces of wafer in there. But the eggs make the difference. You just get them organic and pick them fresh. You can get a mighty good product out of a box, but the best thing is freshness.

“People are getting back to simplicity,” she adds. “They’re rediscovering the flavors they grew up on.”

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