n: A quintessential Southern dessert with exotic origins
Before the Civil War, most Southerners (really, Americans) had never eaten—or seen—a banana. But by the turn of the twentieth century, due to the advent of faster steamships, some sixteen million bunches had arrived in the port of New Orleans. The city became the hub for the trade due to its proximity to the Isthmus of Panama, the main port for the banana-growing regions of Central America and the Caribbean. The fruit quickly gained popularity across the country for its unique shape, low cost, and convenience. The trade made rich men of importers, including Samuel Zemurray, a Russian immigrant who, after tasting his first banana in his new home of Selma, Mississippi, went on to amass a fortune to rival that of the Rockefellers. The influx of the sweet, creamy fruit inspired its use in desserts like banana pudding. Nilla Wafers, introduced in the 1940s, popularized the concoction by printing the recipe on its packaging (though home cooks originally came up with the idea of incorporating the wafer). The creamy combo has gone through several iterations since the mid-1800s. Kelly Fields, head pastry chef at NOLA’s Willa Jean, puts a peanut butter spin on her banana pudding. “It’s the essential dessert at any Southern gathering,” she says. “It holds up well against the heat, and is generally loved by everyone.” And Fields means it—she even suggests it can be “a tell-all about people you shouldn’t trust in your life.”
Kelly Fields goes with a tried-and-true combination: bananas and peanut butter. “Elvis loved it. I love it. Most people I know love it,” she says.