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Pennsylvania: Latrobe's banana-split fest not without controversy

Travelers who fancy gooey desserts and Americana may want to add Latrobe, Pa., to their summer to-do lists. This city of fewer than 9,000 souls, about 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is throwing a three-day bash to honor the banana split.

Seems straightforward, right? Maybe not.

Latrobe's Great American Banana Split Celebration will be Aug. 23-25 and will feature a flash mob, a 1950s-style sock hop, a banana-themed family fair, art exhibits and other fun.

But it's more than an homage to an iconic concoction. It also is the latest salvo in an old-fashioned food fight.

Boosters in Latrobe and Wilmington, Ohio, about 300 miles away, each contend their small community was the birthplace of the banana split.

Latrobe’s backers say David E. Strickler, an apprentice pharmacist in town, created the soon-to-be-famous, three-scoop sundae in 1904.

A century later, the National Ice Cream Retailers Assn. endorsed this claim. Earlier this year, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania handed Latrobe another sweet victory when it endorsed a historic marker for the site of the now-defunct pharmacy, to be unveiled at this month’s celebration.

Wilmington’s advocates are not melting away. They contend that the banana split was created in 1907 by Ernest Hazard, the proprietor of a local restaurant.

Each June the community holds a weekend Banana Split Festival with activities such as a street fair, make-your-own banana-split bar and live entertainment.

“We will not back down from our claim!” proclaims the festival’s website.

Whoever invented it, the basic banana-split recipe is fairly standard: two halves of a banana and one scoop each of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream, drizzled with three types of toppings and crowned with nuts, whipped cream and a cherry — or two.

Joe Greubel, son of the founder of Latrobe-based Valley Dairy, which serves a banana split based on Strickler’s, thinks the original may have had a single cherry. Still, the Valley Dairy’s version plants one cherry on each end, with a miniature American flag in the middle.

Calories? Don’t ask. Dole in Westlake Village, which will supply thousands of bananas for the Latrobe bash, helpfully provides lighter variants of the dish on its website.

One of them tops out at a tidy 270 calories per serving.  It uses vanilla Greek frozen yogurt, pomegranate juice, pomegranate seeds, almonds, honey and unsweetened shaved coconut.

On the final day of the Latrobe celebration, which coincides with National Banana Split Day, organizers hope to stage the world’s largest banana gathering and flash-mob event.

At the local St. Vincent College hundreds of students and visitors will be handed free bananas, asked to peel them in unison for a photo op and then head for the gym for free “splits” – both traditional and healthier versions.

It may all sound over the top. But really, isn’t that the spirit of the banana split?

For an events schedule, visit the city of Latrobe website. Most activities are free of charge, although a gala on Aug. 23 costs $35 and the Aug. 24 sock hop costs $10 for adults and $5 for children.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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