by Leanne E. Smith
When Pat Franklin buys fifty pounds of bananas at one time the second week in June, the cashiers at Ingles grocery store in Marshall, North Carolina, give her funny looks. What could someone possibly do with the contents of a cart loaded with bunches of bananas, boxes of Nilla wafers and vanilla Jell-O pudding, a few gallons of milk, and several containers of Cool Whip and sour cream? Of course: make banana pudding.
And that’s just what Pat Franklin and Elizabeth Roberts, Pat’s 94-year-old mother, do for the Bluff Mountain Festival, held on the Saturday that follows June’s second Friday in Hot Springs, Madison County, North Carolina. The festival started in the early 1990s as a protest against logging plans for Bluff Mountain, a popular destination for picnickers, hikers, fishermen, hunters, and more—and it helped save the mountain (which was also where 2001 NC Folklore Society Brown-Hudson Award recipient Betty Smith lived at the time).
Today, the banana pudding is another incarnation of community involvement because the pudding proceeds benefit the local Junior Appalachian Musicians Program, which offers instruction in several instruments and in dance for students ages five to seventeen. With the rising cost of ingredients, Pat could just make a donation for that amount, but the banana pudding sale calls attention to the JAM program—“And that’s a good thing,” she says, “They associate it with the kids in the music program.” The pre-served cups of pudding are priced at $3 each—but Pat likes it when people pay with $5 bills (or larger) without expecting change, and when a couple buys two bowls rather than just one to share between them.
“It’s probably not a big secret,” Pat said, “because you make it with the Jell-O pudding mix and milk. The difference is that you put sour cream and you put Cool Whip in it, and that just gives it that little extra thing that most banana pudding doesn’t have, I think.” In the wintertime, their basic banana pudding is the custard with meringue browned in the oven. “But in the summer,” Pat said, “this just feels good going down your throat.” Elizabeth found the recipe years ago, submitted by a family cousin, in the Ball Creek Baptist Church Cookbook. The extra ingredients make it taste similar to a cooked pudding. And Jell-O has been around for so long now that it has a multi-generational place in family recipes and community cookbooks.
“It’s not exactly a secret,” Elizabeth chimed in, “but it is around here.” Pat said, “Everybody carries on so much, we just hated to tell anybody there isn’t anything to it. We just act like, ‘Ohhh, it’s a job.’” “It was a job,” Elizabeth said about the three large pans she used to make and serve by hand over a span of hours before Pat developed the individual packaging they use now. Talking to everyone was her favorite part. She and Pat would meet a lot of people in passing who would remember them later. “We’d be in the mall or out to eat,” Pat said, “and some stranger would come over and say, ‘Oh, that banana pudding!’” They’d chat for a while, even when they didn’t remember the person because, as Elizabeth said, “I’ve got my head down in a banana bowl.” Some of the people who’ve moved to the area recently or live there part-time “think this is the finest thing there ever was,” Pat said, “and they want to come down and want to watch her make it like it’s pulling taffy.” Pat joked, “We just act like it’s a complicated family recipe.” After a while, Pat just started calling it “Mama’s Banana Pudding.”
This year (2015), the bananas at the grocery store at the beginning of the week were just right. Some years, they’ve had to put them in brown paper bags in the oven to make them ripen by the weekend. The day before the festival, Pat and a handful of helpers will usually spend hours making and packing pudding. This year, she’d recently had knee surgery, but because many of the musicians returning for the 20th Bluff Mountain Festival would clamor for it backstage, she still made some—a quarter of the amount as usual, with just two additional crew members: her mother plus family friend Judy Ricker.
The pudding party was at Pat’s 120-year-old house that used to be a church and a school, where her father had been a student. His family came to the Little Pine Community in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and “We didn’t go far,” Pat said. Elizabeth grew up in Mars Hill, and since 1946, she has lived next door to the old church-school in the house where the teachers stayed. She and her husband got the house from Mary Morris, a Presbyterian missionary who was also the midwife who delivered Pat’s father. Because of her, Pat’s first name is Mary, and Pat remembers she “never married, loved birds, and when she ate, her teeth popped.”
With all the ingredients spread out in the kitchen, a pre-rain breeze blowing through the screen door, and a wind chime tinkling through windows as big as doors—they began. Even though Pat says it isn’t complicated, the volume makes it a significant effort. To make it, they start by pouring three cups of whole milk in a large mixing bowl. Then they pour in the contents of an approximately 6-ounce box of vanilla Jell-O pudding mix and dip about half of an 8-ounce bowl of Cool Whip and a third of a 24-ounce tub of sour cream. The sour cream helps cut the sweetness of the Jello-O and Cool Whip combination. Either by hand with a whisk or with a hand-held electric mixer, they combine the ingredients into the soupy cream they pour over bananas and vanilla wafers. Then they start over with three more cups of milk and another box of Jell-O pudding.
Elizabeth and Pat approach it differently. Pat said, “I do it different, because I’m in a hurry. She’s more tender with hers.” Elizabeth likes to scrape the pudding bowl with a spatula to get as much of the pudding out as possible. “See, I took every bit of that out of there,” she said. Pat said, “Mama saves everything. She’ll peel and slice the bananas as she goes and then place every banana and Nilla wafer.” Elizabeth said, “I’m meticulous.”
This was the small batch this year—and it still took a couple of hours to make it. And that was plenty of time to reminisce about family and friends, particularly the creative women Pat remembers from meeting them and from hearing family stories about them. Elizabeth talked about her mother, noting she cooked and baked without using measuring cups and made her own patterns for sewing, and Pat added she tatted lace and was an herbalist. Elizabeth said of her mother’s banana pudding, “She made it with eggs and milk and what she had on hand. She didn’t know about Cool Whip.”
When the bowls are served and the lids secured, Pat packs them into coolers. She puts a layer of ice in the bottom; then opens a trash bag and curls the edges around the top of the cooler; stacks as many cups as will fit; cinches the trash bag; pours more ice around it; and closes the cooler and moves it outside, leaving the plug out so it will drain as the ice melts. Packing the individual servings takes more effort ahead of time, but it stays cooler than the large pans they served by hand, and it goes farther in a crowd, too.
Going farther in a crowd is what many people want the pudding to do. Pat, Elizabeth, and Judy thought about local fiddler Roger Howell while they were making the pudding. “If I don’t make this,” Pat said, “I don’t think he would come to the event. His eyes just dance around when the pudding shows up.” His comment the next day at the festival was, “It’s just delectable. I mean, What can you say? It’s good on the taste buds.” Pat said, “When that all melts together, it’s good. It feels good in your mouth.” “It’s like creamed potatoes,” Judy added. Pat continued, “It’s neat to put something in your mouth, and you go back in time. It just takes you to a different time, like hearing music. You can hear a song, and it can take you to a whole different place. I’ve always admired people who could entertain and shed so much joy.” That’s exactly what she does with the pudding and the music education the pudding promotes.