Banana Pudding

Local author Emily Blejwas finds that much of Mobile’s story can be told through the history of one classic Southern dessert.

Unloading a banana steamer, Mobile, circa 1906. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Excerpt from the book “The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods

By 1890, the city of Mobile had been languishing in an economic depression for twenty-five years, brought on by the post-war market collapse of cotton, its primary export commodity. To revive the city, its leaders turned to imports, which would both diversify the economy and make use of existing harbor infrastructure that went unused during cotton’s off-season.

City leaders also had another reason for improving Mobile’s harbor. With its French and Spanish heritage and laissez faire lifestyle, Mobile had always been different from the rest of Alabama. But in the 1890s, following the long economic downturn, Mobile had earned a reputation as a loose city known for horse racing, gambling, drinking, and prostitution. City leaders aimed to clean up Mobile, push it forward, and brand it with a new identity in the twentieth century.

With this in mind, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce offered an incentive of $1,500 to the first company to operate regular fruit ships from Central America to Mobile for one year. In 1893, the first commercial shipment of bananas arrived in Mobile on the ship Sala, consigned for the Mobile Fruit and Trading Company. The Snyder Banana Company soon entered the trade as well, making Central American bananas Mobile’s first regular import.

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Mobile joined the banana trade just as bananas were poised to become an American staple. In 1876, Americans had still considered the fruit exotic. Most Americans had never even seen one. Wrapped in foil, bananas sold for a dime (roughly two dollars today) at the Philadelphia Centennial Expo that year. The banana plant, located in the Expo’s forty-acre display of tropical plants, “was so popular that a guard had to be posted near it so that visitors would not pull it apart for souvenirs.” But by the 1890s, the combination of faster steamships and locomotives, an extensive railway system, and refrigerated boxcars brought more bananas to more regions of the country. In Alabama, new steamships rapidly crossed the Gulf of Mexico to Mobile Bay and rail connections took bananas directly to the cities of St. Louis and Chicago.

By 1900, the banana trade was a thriving enterprise and a linchpin in Mobile’s economy. The third-largest US importer of bananas (behind New York and New Orleans), Mobile was known throughout the nation as a banana port. By 1910, bananas had transformed from novelty into common household commodity, found in grocery stores nationwide. By 1915, Mobile’s city leaders had secured $3 million in federal funds for harbor improvements, allowing for extensive waterfront and harbor development in the 1920s. The Alabama State Docks had become a modern port by 1927, and bananas remained one of the city’s most important exports throughout the 1930s.

The Mobile banana docks sat at the foot of Dauphin and Government streets, in the heart of the downtown waterfront. Here, the United Fruit Company docked their signature white banana boats, “the Great White Fleet,” painted to reflect the Caribbean sun. When the boats arrived, longshoremen hefted the banana stems, weighing forty to eighty pounds each, onto their backs and carried them down the gangplank. The stems then passed down a long line of men extending from boat to warehouse, where they were weighed, checked, and loaded onto refrigerated boxcars. The trains that carried bananas north would return to Mobile with Jonathan apples and concord grapes grown in colder climates.

Mobile banana dock workers, 1920s. Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.

Banana dockworkers were predominantly black men. As Mobile native and folklorist Julian Rayford recalls, “that was a black man’s job. White men were bosses or checkers or spectators.” In fact, from 1890 to 1900, when the banana trade took root in Mobile, the city experienced its largest influx yet of black migrants from rural Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. Many fell into the informal banana docks trade: picking up work when they could and collecting pay at the end of the day. It was not steady or unionized work, and it was certainly difficult, hot, backbreaking labor.

The banana docks eventually spread along the Mobile waterfront, occupying the equivalent of four city blocks. A hub of activity and noise, the docks were popular with local children who came after school and on the weekends to watch the commotion, eat free bananas, search for tropical spiders, and fish from the docks. Rayford, who grew up in Mobile during the 1910s and 1920s, describes the scene in his novel, Cottonmouth: “White kids stood hopefully watching for ripe fruit to drop off the bunches. They darted quickly under the guard lines and grabbed a fallen ripe banana and ran, or, kids with steadier nerves artfully gathered ripe ones and hoarded them inside their shirts, and, with a bulging shirt and bulging pockets, said to any kid who might ask for one, ‘To hell wit’ you! Go git your own!’ Kids with a shirt full of ripe ones, rich, lush bananas, walked off proudly. If they shared them at all, it was done magnanimously, with a buddy. Only with a buddy.”

Rayford’s “Banana Docks” chant is one of the few descriptions of Mobile’s banana docks in existence. He first wrote the chant in 1939, continued to modify it until 1974, and always performed it with the changes in volume, pitch, tone, and speed that he heard at the banana docks as a child. 

In the opening stanza, Rayford sets out to describe “the confusion and excitement, the great hurly-burly of happiness, the noise, the singing and chanting on the banana docks in Mobile.” He details the landscape: the waterfront backdrop, the docks, and the noise of workers singing and chanting, machines running, foghorns, bells, train whistles, and boat whistles. He describes “the ching of tabulating machines, the hum and the click and the roll and the bumpity-thumpity clanking of the conveyors. The chanting of the checkers and the steady hum of the men totin’ bananas and occasionally, a fragment of a song:—a long time, sweet daddy! a long time, sweet momma!”

Loading bananas onto a boxcar in Mobile, 1932. Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

At the docks, Rayford recalls the “waves that slap-slap-slapped against the pilings, the whine of ropes tightening as they were strained around pilings, the groan of pilings as a ship’s weight nudged them, the creak of planking in the wharf, the short echo of a violent gust of sound when a tug captain yanked the whistle cord.” He describes seagulls crying, mewling, wheeling, diving, ascending, and the “soft splash of their clean forms on waves.” He recalls water lilies riding the waves and “the smell of blackstrap molasses drifting down from Beauregard Street.”

Rayford describes the hundreds of riverboats moored at the docks, along with a cluster of tugboats and many small, white banana boats. He recalls some of the banana boats’ names: the Musa, Herman Winter, Mexico Trader, Vera, Gansgourd, and Liasgourd. And “all along the docks, gangs of men loading and unloading ships” including “hundreds of men toting bananas, burdened like Atlas with monstrous stems of bananas” to the warehouse, with bosses yelling and chanting “in a vast hum-shuffle-roar come on move along, move along—pick ’em up! pick ’em up! pick ’em up! come along there, now!, step along there, now, step along!”

Rayford once referred to the banana docks voices as “the most exciting thing you ever heard in your life.” He performed them in rapid succession so that they blended into a cacophony, giving listeners the impression of hearing all of the voices at once.

There is the yelling of the bosses:

Come on here, boy. Pick it up! Pick it up! Git that lead out’n you’ ass and pick it up! Tote ’em on down, son! Come on, move along, pick ’em up, pick ’em up! Speed it up! Speed it up! Come along there, now! Take ’em on down! Step along there, now! Step along!

The cries of the checkers:

Yellow 23! Yellow 23! Yellow 23! Red car 19! Green car 21! Green 21! Green 21! Hey you, god damn it, green 21! Where you going! Yellow 23! Yellow 23!

And the mellow hum of the singing dockworkers:

Tell Louise I see her in the mornin’, Tell Louise I see her in the mornin’, Tell Louise I see her in the mornin’, When the daylight come

When massive amounts of bananas began arriving in Mobile, locals were intrigued by the foreign fruit and tried them in many existing recipes, including pudding. And just as bananas transformed from luxury to staple, banana pudding began as an extravagance before becoming a classic Southern dessert. Before the 1880s, according to historian Virginia Scott Jenkins, bananas “were served only on important occasions and used in small quantities to display wealth and sophistication.”

When the fruit became more affordable and available, more cookbooks began including recipes for banana pudding, made by combining homemade custard, bananas, cake, and sometimes rum. In the 1910s and 1920s, as banana imports to the United States continued to increase, a torrent of discoveries was made about health and nutrition. Newly minted women’s magazines, cookbooks, and home economics manuals marketed new information about calories, germs, and vitamins to women. Fresh fruit was widely promoted, and bananas were touted as nutritious, filling, affordable, and germ free due to their protective peel.

To capitalize on the trend, the United Fruit Company, one of the largest US enterprises, created marketing divisions and educational programs to convince Americans to eat bananas every day.

In 1929, Nabisco became the first company to distribute vanilla wafers in cartons to preserve freshness and their popularity soared, coinciding nicely with the rising demand for bananas. Photo by Becky Luigart-Stayner, courtesy Alabama Department of Tourism

Banana pudding became a dessert for all classes. Often made with leftover cake, it provided a way to use stale or extra ingredients by combining them with something fresh and affordable. Alabama native and chef Scott Peacock recalls his grandmother making banana pudding by combining bananas, eggs, and milk “with whatever she had on hand—leftover cake, toasted white bread [or] stale biscuits.” More affluent Southerners used vanilla wafers, cookies that originated in southern homes and local bakeries. In 1929, Nabisco became the first company to distribute the wafers in cartons to preserve freshness, and their popularity soared.

But for rural families, banana pudding made with vanilla wafers was an extravagance. Bettye Kimbrell, raised on a farm in Fayette County, Alabama, in the 1940s and 1950s, recalls her mother making banana pudding only for special visitors and cemetery Decoration Days. Most rural desserts were made from ingredients at hand, including homegrown fruits and homemade syrup. Banana pudding with vanilla wafers was “a real rarity” for Kimbrell’s family since both ingredients had to be purchased from the rolling store that came by the house each week.

With the outbreak of World War II, Mobile’s economy changed dramatically. As the port of the nation’s second-largest interior river system with rail connections stretching into the Midwest, river connections to Birmingham’s steel and iron industries, and a long shipbuilding tradition, Mobile became the ideal wartime port. Though still the city’s leading import in 1939, bananas were soon replaced by bauxite, raw wool, and manganese ore.

Banana imports resumed prewar levels by 1953 and continued to increase yearly until 1963, when the United Fruit Company cut operations in Mobile. Del Monte shipped bananas through Mobile from 1974 to 1985 but then shifted to Biloxi/Gulfport, Mississippi, in the late 1980s. Though bananas had played a pivotal role in Mobile’s economy, identity, and industry for over fifty years, the banana docks were razed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to make way for a new convention center.

At the time, Chris Raley, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, was in his twenties, a new arrival to Mobile, working at a downtown hotel across from the banana docks. One afternoon, as Raley sat across from the demolition site drinking a cold beer, he decided that if they could tear the docks down, he could build them back. Once occupying the shoreline along four city blocks, the docks included large warehouses, cranes, and floating barges. “Those warehouses were gorgeous,” Raley recalls. “Brick, with twelve-foot windows and beautiful architecture. They could have converted them into shops and loft apartments. They could have made a whole historic waterfront area like they did in Charleston.”

Instead, despite protest by some Mobilians, the demolition went forward. Until it closed in 2010, Raley’s restaurant, the Banana Docks Café, which opened across from the former site of the banana docks in 1991, was the lone reminder of Mobile’s banana industry in the entire city. Raley pulled historic banana docks photographs from the University of South Alabama archives to hang on the walls, infused the restaurant with a tropical décor, and put banana pudding on the menu.”

Emily Blejwas is a writer and the director of the Alabama Folklife Association. Stay tuned over the coming months as MB presents excerpts from her fascinating book, “The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods.”

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