Whether you cast your ballot early or waited until Election Day, it’s possible you’re thinking that the world has gone bananas.
You know what? That’s OK.
Truth be told, if you’re only now deciding that, you’ve not been paying attention. By whatever measurement of lunacy you use, 2020 has been off the charts.
But just like you know what to do when life hands you lemons, you know what comes next when life is doling out bananas — especially if you live in the South.
That’s right. You make banana pudding.
This would be the perfect time. According to NationalDayCalendar.com, November is Banana Pudding Lovers Month, a celebration cooked up by the folks at Rodgers’ Puddings, a family-owned business in Chesapeake, Virginia. Though its small-batch products are available only from select grocers in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the company powered up an online store just days ago for delivery across the U.S.
Company co-owner Martha Ross-Rodgers says the coronavirus pandemic delayed their initial plans to start online sales earlier this year.
“We have always wanted to do it,” she says. “We always have people asking ‘where can we purchase this outside the area?’ But we ran into issues with FedEx and UPS due to COVID-19. We had the website set up … but FedEx and UPS were swamped.”
The online store is the latest progression for the company founded by Reggie Rodgers, a Memphis native who became known as “The Banana Pudding Man” while serving in the U.S. Navy. He started preparing the dessert to share with his fellow sailors while stationed in San Diego after he couldn’t find a restaurant that served it. He called his mother, Polly, for a recipe refresher.
After that, “for every function at most of my duty stations, people wanted and expected me to bring a banana pudding,” he says in an online bio.
His wife says that, as a child, Rodgers bonded with his mother by helping her cook, and he carried over those culinary traditions with their two daughters, Riza and Gina.
A favorite for each generation was banana pudding, with a custard made from scratch, a not-to-be-rushed process that requires low heat and constant stirring so that the custard thickens without scorching.
We asked Times Free Press readers which Chattanooga-area restaurants serve the best banana pudding. Here are their favorites in order of popularity, based on responses.
› Southern Star
› Shuford’s Smokehouse
› Edley’s Bar-B-Que
› Rib & Loin
› Countryside Cafe
› Home Folks
› Kacey Home Cooking
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“That was their bonding — stirring banana pudding and, of course, licking the spoon,” Ross-Rodgers says.
In 2008, five years after Rodgers retired from a 26-year military career, younger daughter Gina proposed starting a business that would sell the custard. Making the custard is the time-consuming part of a banana pudding, even if you’re using pudding from a box, as many modern cooks do. Having a ready-made filling to layer with sliced bananas and vanilla wafers produces a quick, home-style dessert.
The family began the enterprise by cooking up batches in their kitchen to sell at farmers markets. When they outgrew their home kitchen, they found a contract packaging company, a co-packer, to produce it for them.
After the owner died, Ross-Rodgers says, “we decided to purchase our own building and do our own manufacturing.”
Of course a big bowl of banana pudding could be as close as a favorite restaurant. A recent survey of Times Free Press readers found that Chattanooga-area residents rate the banana pudding at Southern Star among the best in town. Readers also singled out several other home-style and barbecue restaurants, including Shuford’s Smokehouse, Edley’s Bar-B-Que, Rib & Loin, Countryside Cafe, Home Folks, Kacey Home Cooking and Zarzour’s.
Rick Adams, co-owner of Southern Star, says after 20 years at the downtown location (there’s also a location on Signal Mountain), banana pudding ranks with meatloaf and fried chicken as the top menu items.
“It’s the only [dessert] we make every single day,” he says. “I’d like to think and hope that the fact that it’s made from scratch has a lot to do with [its popularity].
Adams says there’s no secret to the recipe, other than time-honored tradition.
“It’s not a difficult recipe,” he says. “It’s just like any other custard” with eggs, butter, sugar, milk, vanilla and a little cornstarch for thickening. The meringue, he says, “is just egg whites and sugar beat up.”
“You could probably google ‘banana pudding,’ and find a recipe that would closely resemble ours.”
In keeping with the adage that “you eat with your eyes first,” Adams believes Southern Star’s presentation also plays a role.
“We put it in the bowls and bake it individually,” he says. “It’s pretty with the baked meringue.”
Email Lisa Denton at [email protected]