I’m at the grocery store five days before Christmas. And while most people are congregating in the baking aisle or are waiting in line to pick up their holiday ham, I head up to check out with just three items in my cart.
The cashier is not impressed by my shopping list.
“I just said it was weird,” she says, laughing. “You’ve got bananas, mayo and nuts.”
Little does she know that the contents of my cart have the makings of a Kentucky holiday tradition — well, at least for some people. Banana croquettes are bananas, rolled in mayonnaise, rolled in crushed peanuts.
“They are these strange little things,” says Michaela Miles. “I don’t even really know where they came from, but they’ve always just been a family thing.”
Miles is from Marion County, Kentucky and currently lives in Lexington. She’s the first person who told me about banana croquettes while I was researching unique Kentucky food traditions.
“You don’t ever make them any other time of the year,” she says. “It’s really weird. They sound like they would be a dessert, but we always eat them as like a side item.”
Miles guesses they are a regional thing; her friends from outside Central and Western Kentucky always give her the side-eye when she brings a plate of them to holiday gatherings. And according to Kentucky cookbook author Maggie Green, Miles is right — at least about the bananas part.
Green explains that during the late 19th and early 20th century, the United Fruit Company — now Chiquita Banana — would import bananas from South America into two main ports: New Orleans and Charleston.
“The New Orleans port is the connection to Kentucky because there was a railroad line that went from New Orleans all the way up to Chicago,” Green says. “So they would load the bananas onto rail cars and head out for Chicago, and they’d have to be put on ice.”
So, the rail cars would stop in Fulton County, the westernmost tip of Kentucky, where the only icehouse on the route to Chicago was situated.
Green says at that time, 75 percent of bananas consumed in the U.S. made a pitstop in Fulton, which explains why they were sold widely there — though not who first decided to roll them in mayo and peanuts.
Green also says she’s seen variations on the banana croquettes. Some involve sugar, some add milk, others add vinegar and display the banana slices on crisp iceberg lettuce.
But regardless of its inception, Michaela Miles says the recipe is the one holiday dish that involves even the youngest family members. It was their job to shell, peel and crush the peanuts.
“Even now we have choppers but it is still the youngest child’s job to chop the peanuts, so it’s kind of a family bonding thing,” Miles says.