Latrobe celebrates its invention of banana split

This Saturday Elizabeth Gaston of Ligonier will attempt to bake a banana dessert that outdoes her Bodacious Banana Bliss Split Cake — a pineapple-laced confection with a sugary glaze, drizzled chocolate and mounds of marshmallow cream that she created as part of last year’s Great American Banana Split Celebration in Latrobe.

Banana treats galore will be available at the second annual celebration Friday through Saturday when Latrobe goes bananas for its official recognition as the birthplace of the iconic dessert, the banana split.

Just one of many banana-themed activities throughout Latrobe, the baking contest takes place from 10-11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Quatrini Rafferty Building at 816 Ligonier St.

“The whole celebration is a fun community [event] that is meant to be affordable for everyone. No outside groups are running any of the activities,” said the Rev. Wayne Sautter, an organizer.

The first celebration was held last year when the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission placed a marker on the 800 block of Ligonier Street, making Latrobe’s claim to fame official, Rev. Sautter said. He said there is accurate documentation, including an original receipt from Tassel Pharmacy, proving a banana split was sold there in 1904.

The banana split was invented by David E. Strickler, a pharmacy intern. Mr. Strickler eventually purchased the store where he trained and renamed it Strickler’s Pharmacy.

The popularity of the sweet new delicacy spread when the students from nearby Saint Vincent College left campus and told their families and friends about their tasty discovery, for which they spent 10 cents.

“In those earlier days, they all came to town on the weekends,” Joseph “Ice Cream Joe” Fleming Greubel, owner of Valley Dairy Ice Cream in Latrobe, said of the students .

Wilmington, Ohio, another college town, was also vying for the honor for a similar ice cream concoction made there in 1907, but lacked the proper paperwork to back up its claim. 

Mr. Strickler didn’t talk as much about creating the banana split as he did about playing the trombone in the marching band at Pitt, Mr. Greubel said.

Mr. Greubel, 77, knew Mr. Strickler in the 1950s and said the low-key gentleman approached Westmoreland Glass Co. in the Hempfield village of Grapeville, to produce a glass dish for his dessert.

The company continued to manufacture those dishes until 1984.

Each activity at this weekend’s celebration is sponsored by a different local group.

The baking contest will be hosted by the Latrobe Business and Professional Women’s Club. Judges, composed of local chefs and other officials, will evaluate banana cakes, breads, cupcakes and cookies based on their presentation, texture and taste, said Jean Calabrace, planner of the contest. The winner, or “top banana,” will be a featured dessert at the Latrobe Art Center’s Neighborhood Cafe.

Mrs. Gaston’s cake earned the winning award last year.

Bakers of all ages can preregister or bring their entries at 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

Following the contest, winners from each category will be auctioned and all entries will be available for sale. Proceeds will benefit the Latrobe Community Revitalization Program.

Other events include a reservations-only Yellow Tie Gala sponsored by the Latrobe Art Center. The semiformal will feature live music from the WCCC jazz band outside the center with a tent for dancing and dining. The winner of the center’s “cupcake wars” competition, held earlier this week and based on the Food Network’s reality television show, will display its winning 200-cupcake entry. The winning cupcakes will be sold throughout the year at the center’s Neighborhood Cafe, said Gabrielle Nastuck, Latrobe Art Center director.

Visitors to the art center will also be able to sit at the original five-person soda counter from Strickler’s Pharmacy, the same at which Mr. Strickler first served his three-scoop invention.

“We’ve cleaned it up, and the Latrobe Dairy Queen will be serving banana splits from behind the counter,” Ms. Nastuck said.

“Dairy Queen and Valley Dairy will be both selling banana splits so no matter what end of the festival you are at, you’ll be able to get your banana split, said Rev. Sautter.


Laurie Bailey, freelance writer: 

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