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Pitt fetes alum’s creation of banana split

August 25, 2004 Issue

By Bruce Steele

Already a top banana among academic research institutions, the University of Pittsburgh is also about to become a world-class sundae school.

Here’s the scoop: On Aug. 25 and 26, to celebrate both National Banana Split Day and the 100th anniversary of the banana split’s invention by a Pitt alumnus, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and other University volunteers will be doling out an anticipated 4,000 servings of banana split-flavored ice cream (topped by whipped cream and a cherry) to Pitt freshmen and their family members as well as returning students, faculty, and staff. Sundaes will be served from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. both days under a tent in the Schenley Quadrangle on Pitt’s Oakland campus.

At 10:45 a.m. today, Nordenberg will present Pitt alumnus Joseph E. “Ice Cream Joe” Greubel (KGSB ’59) of Latrobe, Pa.—president of Valley Dairy and coauthor of Ice Cream Joe: The Valley Dairy Story and America’s Love Affair with Ice Cream—with a gift from the University. In turn, Greubel—who will be serving sundaes while wearing his trademark Gay Nineties straw hat, bow tie, and striped vest—will give Nordenberg, Pitt’s “Top Banana,” a large plush banana. The gregarious Greubel will autograph copies of his book, which includes a chapter on the history of the banana split, and perform his customary role as chief “ice screamer,” as ice cream aficionados call themselves.

The two-day event, From Pitt Came the Split: 100 Years of Banana Splits, will be part of the University’s annual Arrival Survival program, during which Pitt volunteers assist new students and their family members as they unload luggage, move in to University housing, and learn their way around campus.

From Pitt Came the Split also should help ensure that Pitt alumnus David Evans Strickler (PHARM ’06) gets his just desserts as creator of the world’s first banana split. In 1904, Strickler was a 23-year-old apprentice at a Latrobe drugstore. While experimenting one day at the store’s soda fountain, Strickler cut a banana lengthwise, smothered it with assorted flavors of ice cream, and topped it with sweet syrups, marshmallow, chopped nuts, whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry. He dubbed his creation the “Banana Split” and began selling the gooey, crunchy, frozen treats for 10 cents apiece. The treats found immediate “a-peel” among students from nearby St. Vincent College. Word of “Dr. Dave’s” banana-based sundaes spread lickety-split as students raved about them to their hometown soda jerks. Within a few years, druggists and ice cream parlor owners across the country learned of the new sundae via correspondence, word-of-mouth, and professional conventions. Strickler went on to buy the Latrobe pharmacy where he’d invented the banana split; he later added an optical business upstairs. Pharmacist, optician, and pioneering banana-splitter, the Pitt alumnus died in 1971 at age 90.

Restaurateurs and drugstore owners in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Wilmington, Ohio, also have claimed that their ancestors or former employees invented the banana split. But those claims are rejected in favor of the Strickler/Latrobe version of events by Mike Turback, an Ithaca, N.Y.-based food writer and author of The Banana Split Book: Everything There Is to Know About America’s Greatest Dessert (Camino Books, 2004). According to Turback, banana splits may indeed have been created independently in Chicago and Wilmington—but not until 1905 and 1907, respectively. As for the claim that a Columbus soda fountain worker named Letty Lally concocted a banana split in the same year as Strickler (1904), Turback concluded that what Lally actually produced was the first “banana royal,” a sundae made with banana slices rather than a banana split lengthwise.

“I’ve talked with everybody and checked out every alternative claim, and there is no question in my mind that David Strickler was the father of the banana split,” Turback said.

The National Ice Cream Retailers Association (NICRA) agrees. This summer, NICRA gave Latrobe’s mayor a certificate honoring the city as the banana split’s birthplace and Strickler as its father. One convincing bit of evidence, Turback noted, is an order—preserved today at Latrobe’s historical center—that Strickler placed in 1905 with a Grapeville, Pa., glassmaker for distinctive “banana boat” dishes for his splits. The company, Westmoreland Glass, continued to produce the dishes through 1984.



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