The turn of the 20th century — the last century of the millennium — was a time of unbridled imagination. Everyone from entrepreneurs to flimflam men were selling folks on the idea of a world of tomorrow. Technology was advancing at a rapid rate. If Lewis Latimer could light an entire room with a longer-lasting carbon lightbulb filament, if Nellie Bly could make it around the world in 72 days, if refrigerated box cars could transport fresh produce by rail across the nation, what else could we achieve?
The year was 1904. Henry Ford set a new automobile land-speed record, Army engineers started building the Panama Canal, and in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a pharmacist by the name of David Strickler developed the first banana split.
It seems silly to list the banana split alongside some of America’s most pivotal moments, but at the time, the banana split was truly a modern marvel. It was American ambition served up in an elongated boat-shaped glass — an opulent dessert that captured people’s imaginations, all made possible by technological advancement, an increasingly globalized supply chain, and confectionery innovation.
Three scoops of ice cream — vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry — cradled by a split banana and topped with pineapple and strawberry sauces, hot fudge, whipped cream, cherries, and nuts. It boasts a variety of flavors and textures, ingredients shipped in from around the world, and varying temperatures ranging from hot fudge to frozen ice cream. Every bite is a sensory overload.
Like most food inventions, there are other places in the country that claim they’re the true birthplace of the banana split. But Pennsylvania can firmly stake ownership. A letter, a newspaper story, and a request to a glassmaker to create a “banana boat” dish all show that 23-year-old Strickler first created the dish in 1904 at Tassell Pharmacy in Latrobe.
The banana split may have been born in Western Pennsylvania, but its fame happened in Philly and Atlantic City. According to a 1963 interview in the Latrobe Bulletin, Strickler credited a group of friends who brought the idea to both spots. Philadelphia already had a long history as the unofficial Ice Cream Capital of America; Atlantic City was a hot vacation destination. Combine the two and you’ve got the 1904 equivalent of a social media influencer campaign. The banana split was a hit. It was fashionable, luxurious, and aesthetically pleasing and ice cream parlors across the nation had to have one on their menus.
Before summer ends, do yourself a favor and take a moment to really appreciate the banana split — not just as a dessert but also as an idea — and channel the excitement and wonderment that it stirred ice cream lovers more than 100 years ago.
Here’s where to get some of the city’s finest banana splits.
Franklin Fountain does more than scoop forgotten ice cream flavors and make old-timey sundaes and floats. The shop serves up a pretty authentic 1900s soda fountain experience. “We want to bring a little bit of that past to our sped up modern world,” says Ryan Berley, co-owner of Franklin Fountain. That’s why a banana split here may be the closest we’ll get to tasting the spirit of a bygone era. “I think it’s symbolic of American indulgence, the sort of go-big food aesthetic,” says Berley. “It’s intended to be a communal eating experience. Banana splits are almost always shared. It’s in the name — split.”
There are two banana splits on the menu at Franklin Fountain, both incorporating the layered tastes and textures that Berley believes makes the dessert so iconic. The Banana Split for My Baby, named after the song and comedy bit by Louis Prima, takes chocolate and peanut butter ice cream and doubles down on the nuttiness with peanut butter sauce and Spanish peanuts. There’s also the Dr. Dovey’s Classic 1904, a traditional banana split complete with crushed pineapples, strawberry compote, and almonds, that pays tribute to one of the men that brought the banana split to Philadelphia.
There are so many flavors of ice cream to choose from — about 20 at any given moment — at La Guerrerense, the traditional Mexican-style ice cream shop in the Italian Market. Though scoops of cheese and tamarind-flavored ice creams are among customer favorites, it’s the tropical fruit-flavored ice creams that complement the banana split best. Its mamey ice cream is subtly earthy, mildly sweet, and fruity and pairs perfectly with banana. For your second choice, go for the coconut, a creamy scoop with a powerful coconut flavor and real coconut shavings in every bite. And finally, for your third scoop, you can’t go wrong with a sweet and tart strawberry swirl.
“I think of bananas as an establishing fruit on which you can build anything — almost anything goes with a banana,” says Chris Maguire, co-owner of the Tubby Robot Ice Cream Factory on Main Street in Manayunk. Maguire and his cofounder, “Shef” Steve Wright Jr., are intentional about constructing every component of the perfect sundae, including the banana split. Everything from the ice cream to the hot fudge and even the whipped cream is made in-house. Maguire recommends getting your banana split with some of their favorite summer flavors — a scoop each of blueberry cheesecake, peach, and chocolate-covered strawberry. “You won’t be bored with any bite,” says Maguire, “every bite is different.”
Banana splits are fleeting. Just as construction is complete on our tower of treats, we tear it all down spoonful by spoonful. The banana splits at C&C Creamery are certainly worth eating in the moment. Its classic banana split is served in a boat filled with a banana and three scoops of homemade ice cream (hard or soft) and loaded up with strawberries, pineapples, peaches, chocolate syrup, whipped cream, crushed peanuts, and a cherry on top. But you can also take your banana split to go in a pint- or quart-sized cup, to share at home or store in your freezer for later. Stick with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream flavors or try popular favorites, including cookies-n-cream, vanilla peanut butter cup, and butter pecan.
“At Splits, we like to let our imaginations run wild,” says Jay Bennett, co-owner of Somerset Splits. With a generous selection of Basset Ice Cream flavors, vegan options, and a laundry list of toppings including pineapple sauce, strawberry sauce, and whipped cream (all three of which are made in house), Somerset Splits is a sundae destination in Port Richmond. When it comes to banana splits, there are three variations to choose from, two of which are inspired by Arrested Development, one of Bennett’s favorite shows. The Banana Stand is served upright like a monolith made of peanut butter swirl ice cream, peanuts, hot fudge, half-baked flakes, banana, and whipped cream. There’s also the G.O.B. (for George Oscar Bluth — another Arrested Development reference), which comes with a banana, two scoops of banana ice cream, sweet chocolate chips, and wet walnuts, all topped with hot fudge.
Between ice cream flavors and toppings, there are a multitude of ways to create your banana split. And the menu at Munchies Ice Cream has a whopping seven takes on the classic. The Baby John is loaded with everything a chocolate lover would enjoy including chocolate jimmies, chocolate chips, brownie bites hot fudge, and chocolate shavings. For more contrast, try the salted caramel split, a fruity banana split with crunchy pretzel pieces and walnuts, and sweet and sticky caramel syrup.
Price: Banana split: $9.49; milkshake: $20
Scoop DeVille is known for its menu packed with quirky creations, but there’s an off-menu option that banana fans should check out. Meet the Supreme Banana Split Milkshake, borne from friendly competition to see just how far they could push the limits. “We’re always trying to top ourselves as far as ridiculousness and things like that,” says Spencer Philips, owner of Scoop DeVille. “This is something that we made to say ‘hey, look at what we can do.’” The Supreme Banana Split Milkshake is everything you’d expect from the classic sundae in the form of a hulking milkshake topped with a banana, whipped cream, fudge, and whatever toppings you can dream up. You’ll definitely want to split this one.
Price: $6.69 for soft serve, $7.49 for hard
A post-dinner stroll down Haddon Avenue in Collingswood is incomplete without a stop at Cabana Water Ice. Its banana splits are colossal. Three scoops of ice cream, three toppings, three dollops of whipped cream, and three cherries held together with single split banana. No matter how you add it up, it’s an exponential flavorful equation that will always equal a delicious dessert.
The banana splits at Five Sisters Ice Cream Parlor and Middle Eastern Sweets lean traditional — a Neapolitan trio of ice cream scoops with a split banana, and some chocolate fudge and caramel drizzled over a mountain of whipped cream — but it’s the little garden oasis under the El that sweetens the deal. The bustle of the Norris Street, Ambler Street, and Front Street intersection melts away when you’re sitting at a picnic table nestled between the fig trees and rose bushes in the ice cream parlor’s side yard. It’s a pleasant spot to enjoy a banana split as you watch the El train roll past.
If summer had a soundtrack, it’s number one hit would be the sound of Mister Softee music floating on the breeze, which ice cream lovers use to geolocate their favorite treats, like bats using sonar. But if you happen to miss the truck, you can go to the Mister Softee Ice Cream Store in Pennsauken, New Jersey. There, the banana splits (listed on the menu as banana boats) come with either soft serve or hand-dipped ice cream. And, while it’s not technically listed on the menu, you can level up by building your own banana split on the shop’s funnel cake sundae. Fried sweet dough absorbing melted ice cream and fruit syrup gives the banana split — which is already a mountain of dessert — a whole new layer.
The Sugaree is a vintage confectionery shop with a modern twist, so expect a banana split that’s as playful as it is a work of art. The orientation of the banana in the banana split is key. At The Sugaree, the banana is nestled at the bottom of the boat. With every spoonful, the whipped cream, toppings, and three scoops of Bassetts ice cream gives way to a soft layer of banana that adds mellow sweetness to the sundae.
About the writer:
Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy award-winning host of WHYY’s Check, Please! Philly and of the food history series Delishtory. She is also a food and travel writer, podcaster, recipe developer and home cook exploring the journey food takes to get to the plate.