In honor of where we came from (that is, our mothers), we're exploring the origins of some of our favorite foods and drinks. Today: the banana split.
Certain things we take for granted: the break of dawn, for instance. Baseball. Banana splits. You know, those decadent desserts of multiple scoops of ice cream wedged between halves of a sweet banana and topped with whipped cream, chocolate sauce, nuts, and cherries.
A relatively recent innovation, the banana split owes a debt to Chester Platt, a druggist in the university town of Ithaca, New York who’s widely credited with inventing sundaes—of which the banana split is a variation.
In 1892, Platt “poured some cherry syrup over [ice cream] and placed that iconic cherry on that dessert,” Michael Turback, the author of A Month of Sundaes and The Banana Split Book, explained to me on the phone. Pouring syrups on ice cream wasn't entirely new (Thomas Jefferson used to pour maple syrup over top, Turback said), but the cherry on top—and the new name—was the clincher. Platt called it the Sunday since that was the day he invented it, but church representatives felt that it was in insulting to God's day, so the spelling was changed.
“Students came from all over to Cornell and they spread the word about sundaes," Turback said. "So, by 1904, anybody who ran an ice cream shop or a drug store where they sold ice cream would be selling sundaes.”
“Anybody,” as Turback suggests, included one David “Doc” Strickler. In 1904, he was a 23-year-old University of Pittsburgh student and apprentice pharmacist at Tassell’s Pharmacy, about 286 miles southwest of Ithaca, in a prototypical American burb called Latrobe, Pennsylvania (also the original home of Rolling Rock lager). At work he made frozen desserts which he enjoyed, as he later told a reporter, because “it was a fun job and a great opportunity to meet girls.”
As the story goes, one day Strickler was challenged by a young customer to make something “different.” Among the ingredients before him was the banana, a new import on the American fruit scene.
“He had this genius to create this banana split sundae,” Turback said. It was culinary opulence: Chocolate syrup oozing down a scoop of chocolate ice cream, strawberry syrup draped across the strawberry scoop, and pineapple adorning the vanilla. There was whipped cream. There was, of course, a cherry.
Strickler wasn’t the only one to come up with this kind of dessert. In the years just after his innovation, dessert makers in Wilmington, Ohio and Boston came up with their own takes on the banana split, sometimes claiming credit for being the first to do so. In Wilmington, in fact, there’s an annual fundraising festival anchored in this myth. The claims are largely discounted, Turback said, and the mantle of inventor belongs uniquely to Strickler.
Strickler, though, was not the only one working at Tassell’s. There was also a young clerk who “eventually went to school at Penn, in Philadelphia, and when he got there he got another job at a soda fountain and he said, ‘We make these,’ and they started making banana splits in Philly.”
“If you take a straight line from Latrobe to Philadelphia, it goes on to Atlantic City,” Turback went on. “Atlantic City was, at that time, America’s vacation spot, the most famous resort in the country. So, the banana split made its way to Atlantic City and people from all over enjoyed and that’s where the national reputation for banana split exploded.”
Turback estimates it took about five to ten years for the split to get to the shore, and a handful more to make its way into popular culture. Like when Stan asks for a banana split in a Laurel and Hardy short from 1929. Or when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers eat them up in a film of theirs.
It was surely a ripe time for such a dessert. After 1929, in the Depression era, there were few splurges people allowed themselves. Among them were movies and an ice cream treat, since a whole dinner out would be too extravagant.
But, as Turback, pointed out, the fortunes of the banana split waned by the 1950s. It had to compete with chains like Carvell and Dairy Queen whose soft serve was not conducive to use in a sundae. In time, too, ice cream flavors started including sundae elements—nuts and bits of chocolate, for instance—mixed right into it, obviating the need for toppings.
That doesn’t mean banana splits are altogether extinct. Hardly. They’re on menus from coast to coast (Morganstern's in New York, for example, serves an $18 King Kong Banana Split with sesame caramel, pineapple, and Luxardo cherries). Rather, it means that tastes change—even when it comes to frozen desserts.
What ice cream shoppe desserts would you like to see make their way back to popularity?
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