The Mysterious Connection Between Banana Pudding And The South

Banana pudding may be a sweet layered staple of Southern gatherings, but it did not originate in the South. 

According to Serious Eats, the first banana pudding recipe — essentially a banana trifle — showed up in Massachusetts-based Good Housekeeping Magazine in 1888. Many variations of the classic dessert exist. Some, like Southern belle Paula Deen's special version, are more elaborate than others. The tried and true (and likely most popular) version of banana pudding is made up of layers of vanilla wafers and bananas smothered in vanilla pudding and topped with whipped cream. How this sweet treat became associated with the South is indeed a mystery — one that, if unpacked, is rooted in Southern culture.

Of course, to create this culinary crowd-pleaser, you need bananas. The tropical fruit was very rare before the Civil War, and faster steam ships and post-Civil War trade enablers made the banana very accessible very quickly, with more than 16 million arriving on our shores by the turn of the 20th century. The other necessary ingredient is some kind of baked good, typically wafers. Perhaps most notably, Nabisco's Nilla Wafers have become inexorably linked to the dessert by their own design, since they began publishing their banana pudding recipe on the side of their trademark vanilla cookie boxes in 1940.

Sweetness and the South

One famous banana dessert that did originate in the South is Bananas Foster. Another sweet, fruity treat commonly associated with the South is Ambrosia, which originally consisted of orange, coconut, and sugar. Anyone seeing a pattern here? It's easy to see how tropical fruit concoctions could become popular in the sweet-loving South. 

Though it didn't originate below the Mason-Dixon, banana pudding somehow became a signature staple of the South. By the 1980's, more than 83% of references to it appeared in Southern newspapers and periodicals. The ease of preparation, typically sans a hot oven (which is perfect for sun-soaked summer months), lends itself well to Southern cooking. Plus, its translation to a "company-sized" passable dessert makes it an easy addition to the church picnics, tailgates and family reunions that are bastions of Southern hospitality. It's that signature hospitality that may hold the answer to the mysterious link between banana pudding and the South. 

According to Southern Living, the things that make the South the South are good manners, gentility, an open-door friendliness, and an always-ready glass of sweet tea — things that tend to pair well with banana pudding. Southern hospitality demands that a word or dish of comfort be extended to any and all who may show up on your porch. Strangers in the South are systematically greeted with a welcoming smile, and a sweet, crowd-pleasing treat is a necessity when showing up at any gathering. Banana pudding fits that bill in spades.