We didn’t have an Easter this year. With mom no longer with us, and me trying to catch up with work, I stayed at my home and Dad stayed at his. No Easter means no banana pudding, and that just won’t do. It’s spring, and here at the coast we’re being drowned in Spanish Moss, which is neither Spanish, nor is it a moss. But, that’s another post. There’s so much of the stuff on the ground, my car lost traction and spun out when I was on my way to the store to buy a big heaping bunch of bananas. After I recovered from my sudden whiplash-inducing experience, bananas safely in hand, I reflected upon the fact that my dad’s mom once did something very strange concerning this heavenly and decidedly southern dessert.
She was a very simple country woman and knew the basics–frying, stewing, boiling, and casseroles. My mother was very reluctant and reserved to eat her cooking. “I don’t want any of whatever that is…you can’t even identify it…what does she mean, ‘meat and rice is for dinner? What kind of meat?'” Once, while preparing a typical Sunday dinner, she’d prepared a macaroni and cheese (baked with an egg custard, not that bechamel stuff) and while waiting on the oven to come to temperature, was assembling a banana pudding from the prepared ingredients–pudding, whipped topping, and wafers. She’d topped off her serving dish and still had a half cup or so of the pudding mixture, so she plopped it into the macaroni dish, stirred it up and put it in the oven to bake. “Didn’t want to waste it, and it’s the same color,” was her logical response. You can bet that my mom never ate anything else grandma prepared.
So what’s the deal with this stuff? It’s the queen of southern desserts, right next to coconut cake. Yet, you can’t find it outside of the south unless it’s in a soul food restaurant. The only similar thing I’ve ever run across is a banana cream pie. Heck, it’s not even a pudding, it’s a trifle. And, bananas come from South America.
Turns out that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, bananas came ashore by way of New Orleans, and we were soon overflowing with them and they made their way through the south. As far as where the trifle idea came from, I have no idea. I do know that there’s a debate between merengue topping and whipped cream. Our lord and savior Alton Brown says that merengue is decidedly deep south while whipped topping is decidedly more northern. As much as I hate to disagree with AB, I can say that having grown up in tobacco country, I have never–ever–been served merengue. Ever. In the Carolinas, it’s all whipped cream or whipped topping and at most barbecue restaurants it’s the only dessert on the menu, scooped out of giant trays onto tiny little bowls all neatly lined up on the buffet. Oh, you wanted cake? None here.
Because I have been feeling run down lately as I try and catch up, I didn’t have the patience to whisk a custard over a double boiler, so I turned to our old friend Mr. Jello Pudding. That’s another debate. Then there’s the one about vanilla wafers vs. nutter butter cookies vs. pound cake. Enough!
Here’s the simple version for the busy cook. Later, we’ll play around with the kind the little old ladies make.
Easy Banana Pudding
1 large box cook-and-serve vanilla pudding mix, prepared according to package directions (NOT instant!)
1 large tub whipped topping, thawed (I whipped up a pint of cream with some sugar)
1/2 box vanilla wafers
You’ll need a trifle dish. If you don’t have one, you need to hit up an estate sale, or two. If you have an affinity for white serving pieces like I do, just use a bowl that doesn’t let anyone see inside. Bananas like secrets.
Begin with wafers, making a neat layer. Add some pudding and smooth it out. Followed by a layer of whipped topping. Repeat until you’ve used it all up, making sure the fluffy whipped topping is on top. Then, to be all razzle dazzle, crush up some cookies in your big monstrous claw of a hand, like I did, and sprinkle them on top. Cover with plastic wrap and chill a few hours before fighting over it.
Oh, and I beg of you, don’t use instant pudding mix. Get the cook-and-serve kind. The instant stuff is grainy and gelatinous.