The History Behind Bananas Foster And The Person It's Named For

Sometimes the names of our favorite dishes become so ingrained in our consciousness that we lose track of the fact that someone, somewhere was the first person to ever combine the ingredients in a way that created the cake that makes an annual appearance at our birthdays or the simple casserole that transports us back to childhood. Even dishes named for their creators eventually lose their connections to the past. We're talking about foods like Caesar Salad (no connection to Julius Caesar) and eggs Benedict. The names roll off our tongues, but who was Caesar of salad fame and what happened to Benedict?

Bananas Foster is one of those namesake foods. Bananas drenched in rum and banana liqueur then flambéed tableside and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's a dramatic presentation for a swoon-worthy dessert, but who is Foster? And why did anyone think setting bananas on fire would be a good idea? It all began at a New Orleans restaurant that had easy access to boatloads of bananas. Literally. 

In the mid-20th century, the port of New Orleans was a major point of entry for bananas shipped from Central and South America. In 1951, Owen Brennan, a Big Easy restaurateur, challenged his chef, Paul Blangé, to create a dessert to honor then-New Orleans Crime Commission chairman Richard Foster. With a bounty of bananas, Blangé came up with — you guessed it — Bananas Foster. At least that's one story. Other versions suggest Blangé had an accomplice.

A tale of two cooks

By some accounts, including Brennan's, Owen Brennan also asked his sister, Ella, to create a dessert to honor Richard Foster. In 2016, Ella's daughter, Ti Adelaide Martin, told NPR her mother was working at her brother's first New Orleans restaurant, Vieux Carré (informally known as the first Brennan's), when Owen surprised her with the unexpected request. "While fussing and carrying on, she just grabs the bananas," Martin said. "[They] were probably just sitting right there, readily available." 

Inspired by a memory of childhood breakfasts of sautéed bananas, combined with a nod to the flaming Baked Alaska on the menu at another venerable New Orleans dining institution, Antoine's, Ella partnered with Chef Paul Blangé to create the dessert that has reigned supreme at Brennan's (both the original Vieux Carré on Bourbon Street and the current incarnation on Royal Street) for more than seven decades.

The now-iconic confection wasn't an immediate hit. It didn't really catch on until Vieux Carré introduced a breakfast menu featuring what is now the restaurant's signature dessert, ultimately spawning the longstanding tradition of Breakfast at Brennan's. (Fear not: It's still a mainstay on the dinner menu.) To match demand, Brennan's flambés about 35,000 pounds of bananas every year. And even decades after its debut, Ella (who died in 2018) and her daughter Ti Adelaide, wondered how it had become so famous, musing to NPR, "Why in the world do people make such a big deal out of that simple dessert?"