Bananas Foster: The history of the classic New Orleans dessert
In 1951, when the Brennan restaurant operation consisted only of Brennan’s Vieux Carré on Bourbon Street, Owen Brennan asked his sister Ella to come up with a fancy new dessert for a dinner that night honoring Richard Foster for being named chairman of the New Orleans Crime Commission. An already-overworked Ella Brennan gathered her chef, Paul Blangé, and headwaiter in the kitchen to help her dream up the new dessert. Scanning the kitchen and spying bananas, she thought of a simple dessert her mother had made by splitting the yellow fruit and sautéing the halves with butter and brown sugar. To jazz it up, she said in her memoir, they poured rum and banana liqueur on top, setting the mixture on fire at tableside, tossing in cinnamon to make it sparkle and serving the concoction over vanilla ice cream. They called it “bananas Foster.” A classic was born.
Bananas Foster is still the signature dessert at Brennan’s Restaurant at 417 Royal St. The cost: $10 per person, minimum two orders per table. The spectacle not only sends sweet scents wafting throughout the dining area but also seems to cue diners to pull out their smartphones to document the moment.
- Bananas are closely interwoven into the history of 20th century New Orleans. For decades, the city’s port was the entry point for almost all of the bananas imported into the United States. Dole Bananas started in the Crescent City as Standard Fruit Co., and Chiquita is the offspring of United Fruit Co.
- There were plenty of bananas in the kitchen at Brennan’s that day in 1951 because Ella and Owen Brennan’s brother, John, ran a produce business that happened to have a surplus of the fruit, according to NPR.
- Brennan’s, which started in 1946 on Bourbon Street, moved to Royal Street in 1956.
- In the first quarter of 2017, Brennan’s served up 16,809 orders of bananas Foster, according to Melissa Montero, the restaurant’s purchasing director. Since each order uses a half-pound of bananas, that translates into 8,404 ½ pounds of the fruit — slightly more than 4.2 tons.
- Other restaurants offer their versions of bananas Foster. Hansen’s Sno-Bliz even offers a bananas Foster snowball.
- The signature event at Brennan’s has always been its lavish, over-the-top breakfast, which can start with a cocktail such as milk punch; continue through a main course, which can include fanciful egg-based creations; and end with dessert.
- In her memoir, Ella Brennan said the concept of breakfast at Brennan’s was devised as a public-relations ploy to draw attention to the restaurant in the wake of the publication in 1948 of “Dinner at Antoine’s,” a popular novel by the New Orleans author Frances Parkinson Keyes.
- The caliber of bananas Foster remained high even during the four-decade family split that was triggered in 1973, when Ella Brennan was fired from Brennan’s, and a period in which overall quality at the eatery suffered. Owen Brennan’s sons continued to run Brennan’s until 2013, when Ralph Brennan, a restaurateur and son of John Brennan, and Terry White bought the restaurant at a sheriff’s auction and spent $20 million to renovate it and bring in a new chef, Slade Rushing. It reopened in 2014.
Bananas Foster is a marquee item, a perennial favorite on the Brennan’s menu. The reasons are simple: It can satisfy any sweet tooth, it smells great, and the tableside fire, which climbs toward the ceiling, is certainly dramatic. Yet in interview after interview, Ella Brennan claims she can’t understand all the fuss about a dessert that her mother whipped up in her Uptown kitchen.