Banana Cream Pie for Pi Day

Banana Cream Pie for Pi Day
Photo credit: Food and Wine

Banana Cream Pie Day was March 2, but Pi Day is coming up on March 14.  I happen to like Pi but millions more like Banana Cream Pie, so I am combining the two dates for this post. Other than sounding the same, they share one other feature – their history is from more than 3,000 years ago. But this is about food, not math!

The evolution of the banana cream pie reflects perfectly how the availability of certain ingredients dictates recipes and comes from two distinct histories – the history of pie and the history of bananas.

First came the pie crust

First, we start with the evolution of the pie crust, which began in ancient Egypt where wheat was a staple crop.  They made a galette with a dough made of flour and water and filled with nuts, honey and fruit. The Greek adopted the dough and used it to wrap around the whole beef filling by making it a shell i.e. no longer an open galette, now sealing in the juices and saving the meat from being burnt.  A clear improvement in cooking techniques!

The Romans conquered the Greeks and adopted these meat shells and created sweet versions, as it appears Romans liked their sweets. They then spread this simple dough use around Europe and throughout their empire.

At this point, we can imagine those over-size lavish feasts that we have seen in movies or read about in historical novels, where a large shell, made of that simple flour (from wheat grown in Europe) and water dough, is on the middle of the banquet table.  At a strategic, dramatic point in the feast, someone cracks open the top of the shell and birds fly out of it.  Or in the case of the feast put on by King Charles V, where there was a girl inside! These were aptly named surprise pies, for which there was a recipe published in Italian in 1598.

Dough becomes pastry

Though my pie crusts could probably serve that purpose of being a hard shell, sometime before the 16th century – when pastry recipes first appeared in Europe – the “dough” became a pasty through the addition of fat, in the form of lard, plentiful in Europe where livestock was raised.  (These same areas also had apple trees and recipes for apple pie have been found written in English, French, Italian and German.)

The English, who made mostly savoury pies, brought them to America, where they used local berries and fruits, using round pans to stretch out their ingredients, giving the pie its current structure and shape. In the 17th century in America, they were served as part of almost every meal and became part of American culture.

Coming to America part II – how did bananas get into the pie?

From the over 1,000 species of bananas, and the yellow one that we generally eat in Europe and North America is a mutation!

The banana’s history began in South Asia and New Guinea around 5,000 years ago, was taken to Africa by Arab traders, eventually to West Africa where Portuguese traders found them.  They transported the bananas to Europe in the 15th century, and they made their way with sailors to the Canary Islands, then to the West Indies.

But it took a mutation in 1836 that resulted in the sweet, yellow banana that we now eat. When Jamaican Jean Francois Poujot discovered it was sweet without cooking, he began to cultivate it. Considered a sweet treat, it was exported to New Orleans, Boston and New York, and “were all the rage at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, selling for a hefty ten cents each.”

Photo credit: Food and Wine

One can only imagine that given its high expense the people who purchased the bananas would find all sorts of uses so they would not go to waste.  Originally eaten on a plate with a knife and fork, it started to make its way into other fruit recipes, to which they adapted well, such as banana bread, banana pudding, and of course banana cream pie, which is a descendant of the medieval custard pie. The oldest recipe for it was in a cookbook published in the late 1800s.

We have just covered 6,000 years and a lot of the globe to end up with banana cream pie!


Here is a link to one banana cream pie recipe.  Given my comment above about my pie crusts, I would cheat by either having my sister make the crust or buying a good quality one until I practice enough to make my own!

I love Saveur magazine, so I am sharing their recipe which is based on one from Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook (Macmillan and General Mills, 1950).