Doing Her Potluck Duty

Brenda Bell last wrote about asparagus for the magazine

Here’s what I hate about potluck suppers: Too many guests shirk their culinary duty. They load the table with salads from the deli and desserts from the bakery. “I’ve been so busy!” they shrug, proffering machine-peeled baby carrots dumped from the bag, yard-long baguettes, hunks of cheese. As for something personally cooked by the person who brought it--forget it. Whatever happened to pride?

Potlucks have become sorry imitations of the hearty covered-dish suppers that once highlighted church gatherings and family reunions all across America. These repasts were showcases for family recipes--Mama’s Ice Box Cookies, Aunt Ella’s Spoon Bread--that had stood the test of time and rigid expectations. A flabby crust on the peach cobbler, baked beans minus the spoonful of vinegar--people noticed those things. There were standards to uphold, and folks didn’t begrudge spending time in the kitchen meeting them.

Once, our family was called upon to bake the brownies for a big church barbecue. Lesser cooks might have relied on Betty Crocker, but not us. We were famous for our brownies, made with real butter and iced with old-fashioned fudge you boiled until just the right nanosecond, then beat into creamy submission. It took us all day, but we made those brownies the way they were supposed to be made, pan after pan of them. The Protestant hordes devoured every crumb.

Last summer, I took one of my signature desserts to a potluck meal. People eyed the contribution of homemade origin warily. “What is it?” someone asked. “It’s banana pudding,” I announced. “The best you’ll ever have.”


Instead of digging in, everyone hung back. Then the realization dawned: No one had a clue what banana pudding was. I was dealing not only with shirkers but ignoramuses, too. How could I begin to tell them what they were missing?

Basically, banana pudding is an American take on the English trifle: custard layered with sliced bananas and vanilla wafers, then topped with meringue or whipped cream. It’s best eaten the day it’s made and has been popular for ages in the South. Elvis is said to have demanded that the Graceland cooks make a fresh batch for him daily. In Elaine Corn’s sublime “Gooey Desserts” cookbook, banana pudding is described as one of the four basic food groups of Kentucky. Her extravagant version is jazzed up with bourbon-sprinkled wafers.

I wanted to explain that my own banana pudding is made from scratch, not pudding mix, that my special touch, invented at age 16, is a prebaked vanilla wafer crust. But there was no time for heartfelt testimony. Already some self-appointed food police were speculating as to the fat content of my dessert.

“It’s homemade, so it’s low-fat,” I lied, quickly spooning a few helpings on paper plates. “Try some.”


Within an hour, my serving dish was scraped clean. As I carried it home, I felt a wistful pang--for a time when the food at communal events was prepared with pride and people were aware of its place in the annals of a family’s past. To share it was to share your history--a piece, really, of yourself.

I don’t know why I bother to make banana pudding anymore, but I do. When I watch people lick their spoons, I have to wonder: Am I doing it for them? Or for me?


Real Banana Pudding


Serves 6 to 8

Crumb crust:

1 box vanilla wafers

1 tablespoon sugar


3 tablespoons butter, melted



2/3 cup sugar


3 tablespoons flour

2 1/2 cups milk

4 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


1 tablespoon butter



4 egg whites


1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

3 tablespoons sugar

2 to 3 bananas, peeled and sliced


Crumb crust: Crush half of the vanilla wafers and mix with sugar and melted butter. Press crumbs in bottom of 3-quart casserole dish. Bake at 400 degrees for 7 minutes. Let cool. * Pudding: In heavy saucepan, combine sugar and flour. Add milk and blend well. Cook and stir over medium heat 3 to 4 minutes. Whisk egg yolks in small bowl with some warmed milk and return milk-egg mixture to saucepan. Stirring constantly, cook (but do not boil) mixture until thickened, about 5 minutes more. Remove from heat, add vanilla extract and butter and whisk vigorously to remove any lumps. Let cool. * Meringue: Beat egg whites, vanilla extract and cream of tartar until frothy. Slowly add sugar, beating at high speed until glossy peaks form. * To assemble: Place a solid layer of bananas on crust, followed by one-third of the pudding. Dot with whole vanilla wafers. Repeat layers, ending with pudding on top. Spoon on meringue. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Refrigerate until served. * Note: Sweetened whipped cream may be used instead of meringue.