I grew up in a test kitchen before food, chefs, and food-culture as we know it existed. There were no blogs. You could count the number of celebrity chefs on one hand, and her name was Julia. Beyond that, regional American food didn’t exist outside of the region, and fine food meant French, or maybe Italian.
Despite this, my dad began collecting recipes from his Appalachian Studies class almost as soon as he began teaching in eastern Kentucky in 1976. He took it one step further in 1986 when he began a weekly recipe column in the local paper, The Appalachian News Express, which turned into a television show on the public access channel and, finally, a cookbook. So the test-kitchen process started early and lasted until well after I left for college. The embarrassment I felt was no different than any other child. The source, however, was somewhat unique.
Test-kitchen living with a family (I was 12, my brother 10 when the column started) and in your own home is very interesting, because test kitchens have to be scientific and organized. There are labels on things that you can’t eat. There are months on end of cooking and tweaking the same recipe. To this day if I see a cushaw (a big fall squash), I get a slight turn in my stomach. There are seven cushaw recipes in my dad’s book, which means endless meals of cushaw soup, bread, sweet pie, savory pie, baked three different ways. There is the day you come home from college after having been a vegetarian for seven years to a full pig’s head in your freezer for the head cheese that will be made later in the week.
From the beginning, students brought us squirrel, bear, and venison. People wanted to share their recipes. There were church potlucks. It was clear that there is a cultural importance of food in eastern Kentucky in a way I don’t think my dad had experienced before. His family was German, and while I have loads of family recipes from them and they seemed to like fine food, looking back on it now, the meals they cooked all had a very sterile feel. My grandmother’s kitchen was not a welcoming place. Food for the Sohns was important and passed down but not familial in a Southern way. I think my dad sensed the communal and familial difference embodied in Southern and Appalachian food when he arrived in Kentucky and started eating. And so the recipe collecting began.
None of this was of any interest to me growing up. I hated it. I begged to be sent to boarding school. I tried to start eating my dinner as quickly as possible before my dinner plate could be photographed. I hated being taken to food writing workshops. It was all an embarrassment and an annoyance.
Then I went to Colorado for college. Finally, I thought, I’m away from recipes, Southern food, and TV cameras in our kitchen. I know it is shocking for anyone that knows me, but these strong sentiments evaporated after only a year. In this completely foreign place that I assumed would be my escape, I realized how Southern I was. I began to identify whole-heartedly with where I came from. During my sophomore year, my dad’s book, Mountain Country Cooking, was published.
Being out west surrounded mainly by people who were not Southern was an eye-opener. Soup beans? Never heard of them. Cornbread? Only cake-like with sugar and honey. Greens? Why would you cook lettuce they asked? All of this I could handle. I slowly realized that Appalachian food was very specific and I was okay with it. Somehow, though, the thing that offended me the most was the number of people who had never heard of banana pudding. Never. Even. Heard. Of. It. That became the dish that put me over the edge.
So I found myself in the dorm kitchen with my dad’s cookbook cooking for people; more specifically, making banana pudding for them. I cobbled together the supplies and equipment. I used a whisk to create the meringue. It was here in these crappy dorm and rental apartment kitchens that food began to emerge from the scientific test kitchen and into my real life, fostering real friendships. Despite my life of potlucks and food, it was the first time I personally began to serve food to create a community for myself. It was a community that I was desperately homesick for.
It would be many more years before I fully embraced the importance of food for myself. I tried many times to abandon it beyond the necessity of eating. None of these attempts were successful. While there are a number of stories between banana pudding and now, the pudding was the beginning.
Laura Sohn runs the event-planning company Mockingbird Events and co-owns the Public House bar.
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2½ cups whole milk
4 eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla
1½-2 lbs of almost overripe bananas (ideally the bananas have black spots)
6 ounces vanilla wafers
½ cup marshmallow cream
Begin the pudding by separating the eggs. Reserve the egg whites for the meringue. In a small bowl, whisk the yolks until smooth.
Next, in a cold saucepan, whisk together the sugar and flour until smooth. Slowly whisk in the milk, and then cook over medium heat until the mixture bubbles for one minute.
Temper the egg yolks by whisking about a third of the hot milk mixture into the yolks, and then return to the saucepan. Whisk and cook again until the mixture thickens or reaches 177 degrees. Do not let the mixture boil, and do not let the yolks cook through. Stir in the vanilla when the mixture becomes thick. Remove from the heat.
Line the bottom of an 8 in. by 8 in. casserole dish with vanilla wafers and two of the bananas sliced lengthwise. Cover with one-third of the custard and repeat until all the custard and bananas have been used, ending with custard.
Next, make the meringue topping. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until almost stiff. Slowly add the marshmallow cream. When fully mixed and stiff, spread the meringue over the pudding. With the back of a spoon, draw the meringue into peaks. Garnish with a few more vanilla wafers. Bake for three minutes, or until the meringue peaks are brown.
Cool and serve warm, or refrigerate for four hours to serve cold.