In February, 1978 we shared a recipe for Hummingbird Cake submitted by one of our readers, Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina. That layer cake turned out to be Southern Living’s most requested recipe in our 51 years, elevating it to the echelon of classic Southern cakes. That’s quite a feather in hummingbird cake’s cap considering that we’ve published tens of thousands of recipes, which leads to a couple of questions. What is Hummingbird Cake? And is it really Southern at all?
Mrs. Wiggins’s take on this cake was a three-layer combo of spice caked laced with crushed pineapple, bananas, and pecans covered in cream cheese frosting. The novelty of combining bananas and canned pineapple in cakes first appeared in print in the early 1970s and were making the rounds in small town newspapers and recipe swaps, so her submission was timely and fashionable.
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Unlike most fancy layer cakes, the batter is stirred together in one bowl, with no need for an electric mixer. Although the many recipes for Hummingbird Cake are remarkably similar, a few tweaks won’t wreck it. Some bakers add a little coconut. Others add a pinch more spice. Some call for self-rising flour. There are versions where the cake is Bundt-baked or divided into cupcakes, but the core combo of bananas and pineapple holds true.
But is it Southern? The short answer is yes, but with roots stretching much farther South than Greensboro, or even Birmingham. Hummingbird Cake inspires plenty of anecdotes, mostly in puzzlement over its name. Some say the cake is so delicious that it makes us hum when we eat it. Another is that this fruity cake is so sweet that it could attract hummingbirds seeking nectar. A more corroborated theory is that a precursor to this cake was created by an ad agency trying to promote a new Jamaican airline. In an effort to attract tourists, they sent out recipe cards for local dishes, including a Doctor Bird Cake, named for a type of hummingbird that is the national symbol of Jamaica and, not coincidentally, part of the airline’s logo. The cake contained pineapple and bananas, tropical ingredients that one, hopefully, would associate with a dream vacation in Jamaica, only a flight away. Who can say whether the campaign was effective, but the cake was a winner.
One might say that the thing that made Hummingbird Cake Southern was Southern Living. You’re welcome.