THOUGH I WOULDN’T CHOOSE banana pudding out of a dessert lineup, so to speak, I have always liked the basic recipe printed on the box of Nabisco Nilla Wafers. (The cookies used to be called simply vanilla wafers, but Nabisco shortened the name back in 1967, the year I was born, which is beautiful symmetry, maybe even a sign, if you believe in such things.) In my book, as desserts go, banana pudding is not a ten but not a zero either, maybe a six. Though I rarely make it myself, when someone else does, I enjoy it until the meringue gets soggy or the bananas turn brown or the whole thing takes on a strong alcohol taste, a big bowl of banana alcohol, at which point I feed it to my dogs or chickens because, although banana liqueur is perfectly good, no one wants Nilla Wafers in their booze.
My ambivalence toward banana pudding changed when, on a trip to New York, I visited Magnolia Bakery. The bakery makes other puddings—apple pie, red velvet, cold brew banana, and so on—but their banana version evokes for me southern potlucks and church suppers, only better, a new and improved version of the old staple. Not layered but stirred and served in a cup, more custard than pudding (though I’m not sure I know the difference), the dessert is rich and comforting and, most importantly, decidedly unsoggy. (I suspect this has something to do with the three cups of whipping cream and can of sweetened condensed milk that replace the milk in the original recipe, but I could be wrong.)
After I tried it, I told anyone who had ever served me anything with bananas or anyone I had ever witnessed eating a banana how good it was until finally my friend O.J. found the recipe online and sent it to me. It wasn’t complicated, and it tasted pretty much like what I had eaten in New York, which is to say, amazing. My confidence in my dessert-making ability soared. Then, in a strange banana-related coincidence (among, believe it or not, a string of banana-related coincidences, as one of my students had just completed delivering a multimodal presentation on banana farming all while dressed in a banana costume), a colleague happened to mention in passing that he had discovered the best-ever recipe for banana pudding.
Still on a culinary high from my Magnolia pudding success, I scoffed and guffawed, but he was insistent, and, to be fair, he had, in the past, worked at a cheesecake factory (as in, a production facility, not the restaurant). Once, he had even brought me proof of his culinary prowess: an incredibly creamy slice of his homemade cheesecake. What I’m saying is, he had a good baking track record, so I was inclined to take him and his banana pudding seriously. When he later sent me his recipe, therefore, in return, I sent him my recipe—the Magnolia recipe, that is. Game on.
His recipe, it turned out, was from Paula Deen, which was, of course, problematic. Or, rather, I found Deen herself to be problematic. I was still undecided on her pudding. Though I had occasionally used her recipes in the past, after the 2013 scandal during which she had admitted to having occasionally used the N-word—the implication being, as one does, or as one does in the South—I had avoided her recipes entirely. I didn’t want to support her by buying her cookbooks, but I decided it wouldn’t hurt to view the recipe online.
Deen dubbed the recipe “Not Yo’ Mama’s Banana Pudding,” the name itself a form of taking, yet here I was, already on the page, a basket full of bananas in my kitchen. The recipe used butter cookies, specifically those cute little Pepperidge Farm chess cookies, instead of vanilla wafers. It sounded easy and creamy and decadent, and on New Year’s Eve, I decided the time was right to try it. To make it, you place a layer of cookies on the bottom of the pan, then cover that with a bunch of sliced bananas, then a mixture of instant pudding and sweetened condensed milk and cream cheese and Cool Whip. Finally, you add a layer of cookies, and—voila!—a chessboard. Then you let the whole thing sit in the refrigerator until the cookies get soft, and, oh, sweet Jesus, it is so gloriously rich, so simple but so good, like the very best things about Appalachia, sweet iced tea and ghost fireflies and steep, winding roads leading nowhere in particular and everywhere all at once, but it is also layered, like being southern in general and Appalachian in particular, like the way “You don’t sound like you’re from here” is supposed to be a compliment, like the many ways I have tried to wash the Appalachia off me, clipped my vowels and hardened my g’s, the way I have given up “cut out the light” and “I dropped that in the floor” and “I’m gonna get in the bed” but kept “y’all” and a special knack for softening hard truths. The moment I tasted that pudding, there I was again, church suppers on the lawn with tuna noodle casserole and fried chicken and molded Jell-O salads, a whole spread of desserts, chocolate cake and pound cake and pecan pie and, always, banana pudding.
When I was a teenager, at church we prayed for salvation for the righteous but not for the fifteen-year-old kid who snuck whiskey in a flask into our Bible study meetings and not for the kids in the area of town where white parents told their white kids not to go and not for those of us who wanted our brothers in Christ in a decidedly unchristian way and especially not for the gentle drum major in the band who we all knew was something we couldn’t and shouldn’t name because he too wanted his brothers in Christ in a decidedly unchristian way and not for the twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys who, during long, dark bus rides home from Presbyterian youth retreats, were forced to play along when our forty-something group leader—a woman with long, blond hair, a loud laugh—joined our games, sat on the boys’ laps and French-kissed them each, one by one. Truth or dare. Truth or dare. We did not yet know—I did not yet know—that for the rest of our lives, we would wrestle with who we loved and where we loved and how to love a place that did not properly love us back.
So many of us have spent our adult lives searching for a better version of ourselves, of our people, our history. And then came 2016, Trumpism, and the rise, once again, of the bigoted South, as if it had ever left. I had had the luxury of believing I could wish it away. I’m Appalachian but not like that, I had said or felt or tried to believe. My family isn’t racist. My family isn’t homophobic. Yet some of them were then and are still, and it feels like a betrayal to say that out loud, but not saying it is a betrayal too, so I say it here, and in saying it, I hold close that forest clearing near Cat Gap where nothing but white pines and turkey brush grows, the way the French Broad looks from a canoe—dark and mysterious, cool mist rising over the banks, a blue heron silently lighting on branch after branch after branch, my uncle Bill’s hound dog standing outside on hind legs, paws on the bedroom window pane, looking in and baying and baying as my uncle’s spirit leaves this world, to the sound of my grandmother singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” her clear a cappella old, old, old as these hills, old as my home.
Replace the milk with whipping cream. Switch out the vanilla wafers for Nilla Wafers for butter cookies. Throw in sweetened condensed milk. Stir it all up. If we just keep tweaking the recipe, we may eventually get it right, call forth what is good, keep what is beautiful, discard what is rotten, redeem our boozy banana mess, and make something not entirely new but not old either, and so we shall be born again to live in the newness of the spirit always reaching, always longing for a more perfect home, a better version of the Appalachia that is hard and heartbreaking yet still and always all of ours.
Jennifer McGaha’s most recent book, Bushwhacking: How to Get Lost in the Woods and Write Your Way Out (Trinity), grounds writing lessons in outdoor adventures. Her first memoir, Flat Broke with Two Goats (Sourcebooks), was a Big Library Read. A native of Appalachia, she teaches at the University of North Carolina–Asheville, where she coordinates the Great Smokies Writing Program.
Image courtesy of Abigail Ducote, via Unsplash.