Women in Food

Ella Brennan & Bananas Foster

The lowly banana forms the foundation of the world’s most famous flaming dessert: Bananas Foster. It all began right here in New Orleans. Long associated with Brennan’s on Royal Street, Bananas Foster debuted at Owen Brennan’s first restaurant, the Vieux Carré.

Originally a liquor salesman, Owen became a bar owner in 1943 with the purchase of the Old Absinthe House. When the restaurant across Bourbon Street became available in 1946, he snapped it up. All along, Owen’s greater goal was to create a family business that would take care of them all. The first family member onboard was baby sister, Ella. When she graduated from high school, he convinced their mother, Nellie, to allow Ella to handle his books and banking for the bar. Her role expanded dramatically with the restaurant acquisition, when Owen asked her to help manage the place.

Fortunately, the accomplished Dutch chef, Paul Blangé came along with the purchase. Ella shadowed him closely, challenging him to create new dishes not found on other menus in town. Chicken Pontalba, stuffed flounder and redfish courtbouillion based on classical French cuisine were Americanized with Creole touches. The two soon hit their stride and Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carré became the toast of the town.

One morning in 1951, Owen appeared in the kitchen to challeng Ella with a dessert assignment. His close friend, Richard Foster, had just been appointed chairman of New Orleans’ newly created vice commission and Owen was hosting a dinner in his honor. “Kid, an exciting dessert. By tonight. For Richard. Got it?” she recalled him asking.

Looking around the kitchen Ella noticed an abundance of bananas and thought of a favorite dish from their childhood. Their mother, Nellie, sautéed bananas with a little butter and brown sugar, often for breakfast. Next, Antoine’s Baked Alaska popped into mind. “Everyone loves that damn dessert, a little cake with meringue that folks love because they flame it. Let’s flame ours!” she suggested to Chef Blangé. Ella’s final touch was a little sprinkle of cinnamon that sparkled in the flames like fireworks, especially when the dining room lights were dimmed.

A new Creole classic was created, but Ella never forgot Owen’s complaint upon tasting his first Bananas Foster. “Gee,” he said. “Why did you have to ruin it with the ice cream?”

Sorry, Owen! For decades now, millions of satisfied diners have thought differently.