Biscuits & Jam: A Southern Living Podcast
Welcome to Biscuits & Jam, Southern Living's podcast that celebrates the stories, the nostalgia, and the legends behind some of our most popular recipes.
This season, we're diving into the Hummingbird Cake – a recipe that first ran in Southern Living back in the 70s, but has turned into the most popular recipe we've ever published. It was first submitted by a Mrs. L. H. Wiggins, a woman who, up until now, has been a complete mystery.
Join producers Meg Pace and Nellah McGough as they uncover the secrets behind the pineapple, banana, and pecan layer cake that has enthralled the South.
Listen to the first episode here, or listen to Biscuits & Jam on your favorite podcast app, including TuneIn and Stitcher. Need some help with downloading? Check out our primer on How To Download A Podcast to get you started.
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SEASON 1, EPISODE 5 (FINALE)
MEG: It took 40 years, but we now know who the woman was behind the initials L.H. Wiggins. That's how she signed her name when she submitted that layer cake recipe that would go on to become Southern Living's most epic. Now that we've tracked down her origins, we still don't know where she got the recipe.
SID: We have not solved that mystery yet, so I don't know where she got it. There are a number of theories about that. There is a cake that comes from Jamaica that's called the doctor bird cake, and a doctor bird is a kind of hummingbird, so we think that it's connected to that, and maybe she picked that up somewhere.
MEG: In 1969 the Charlotte Observer ran a recipe for the doctor bird cake. The food editor at the time, Helen Moore wrote that doctor bird is the nickname for Jamaica's national bird, the swallow-tailed hummingbird. This cake though, was baked in a tube pan and had no frosting. Mrs. Wiggins' cake is three layers topped with cream cheese and pecans.
NELLAH: It seems like it may have it's origins in Jamaica, it was printed on the back of a publicity marketing thing from Jamaican Airlines.
MEG: Southern Living assistant food editor Pat York has looked into the origin of this cake several times.
PAT: We believe it came to us from Jamaica as part of a letter from a Jamaican Airlines. They were trying to drum up tourism. And so of course, versions started appearing in those spiral bound community cookbooks as just two pan cakes or loaf cakes, and at some point we threw cream cheese on top of it, made it a southern thing.
MEG: I scoured the internet looking for the origins of Mrs. Wiggins' version with the frosting. Every article, story, and even the hummingbird cake's Wikipedia page claim that that little article on bananas in Southern Living's February 1978 issue is the very first publication of that layered cake with cream cheese frosting, and the first time a recipe was published under the hummingbird cake title. All the earlier versions had the doctor bird moniker.
PAT: So many recipes are so hard to track down, because they're passed along on recipe cards, and by word of mouth, and just through families and friends, but the recipe that she sent in was the first one that we've been able to find that was a layer cake using cream cheese frosting.
MEG: Hoping that maybe this recipe was a family heirloom, Nellah and I asked Mrs. Wiggins' little sister about it. Mrs. Evelyn Rakes is 96 years old, and she says she still has the February 1978 issue with her sister's famous cake inside. Do you know where she got the recipe?
EVIE: You know, I really don't, I really don't know.
MEG: We also tried Joan Steele. Mrs. Wiggins nannied Joan's children a year after her cake was published. Do you know where she found the recipe?
JOAN: I have no clue, no idea. I don't recall her saying where she found it.
MEG: Nellah had one more idea, put in a call to one of Southern Living's most revered veterans. Nellah describes her as genius.
MARY ALLEN: Hi this is Mary Allen Perry, and I was senior food editor at Southern Living for a number of years. I worked there for almost 20 years.
NELLAH: Oh lordy girl, how are you doing? It's so good to hear your voice and get to talk to you.
MARY ALLEN: You too, I miss seeing you.
MEG: Do you know the origins of the hummingbird cake, where Mrs. Wiggins maybe found the recipe?
MARY ALLEN: Oil cakes, especially during the 60s and 70s, and into the 80s were hugely popular,
so I think she may have done, like improvised on a carrot cake, because the elements are real similar. The carrot cake was hugely popular, and she could've just decided to substitute bananas for the carrots, and a lot of carrot cake recipes, they're lightly spiced like that. The hummingbird traditionally has some cinnamon in it, and carrot cake is lightly spiced
and a lot of people put the canned crushed pineapple in the carrot cake recipe, so those recipes are very similar, and the carrot cake had the cream cheese frosting on it, so it could've just been something she created because she had some bananas on hand, or a twist on a banana cake and adding those elements to it.
NELLAH: We know she was a good cook, all of her family has said how much she loved to cook, and she cooked for her neighbors and had them over, and she was a very social person. I love carrot cake, and that's the first thing I thought of too, Mary Allen, that it was very similar to a carrot cake. So maybe that's what she did. She may have heard about that cake, and maybe she just took the two...
MARY ALLEN: It's interesting that no one else has claimed ownership of it in any way, that there are not really any records of it before that, because I love doing research on different recipes and foods, and a lot of times people will reference a source from 100 years ago or something even, and other sources show up, but for the hummingbird cake, that I know of, there's never been another source. I almost just think that it was something like I said, that she made, and then everybody was telling her, oh my gosh, this is so delicious, you oughta send it to Southern Living. That was just the hallmark in the south of having your recipe validated, if it appeared in Southern Living. Hearing that she cooked so often, I'm sure she was very comfortable in the kitchen, and was comfortable with making substitutions. For so many years, people just used
what they had on hand too.
MEG: Mary Allen is one of the reasons Mrs. Wiggins' legacy seems to be always present at Southern Living. In her almost 20 years with the magazine, Mary Allen spent hours upon hours with the hummingbird cake recipe. She's the brains behind so many of Southern Living's variations over the years.
NELLAH: Mary Allen is just a genius when it comes to coming up with all of these recipe profiles, these flavors, it's just amazing to me, Mary Allen, how you do this. So how did you come up with these various variations of the hummingbird cake?
MARY ALLEN: I think that the first variation I did was actually a contender for the Christmas cover, the December cover, maybe 10 or 12 years ago. And my notion there, because of course my philosophy is there's no such thing as too much of a good thing, so I liked the flavor profile of it, and I thought it would make a great coffee cake for breakfast, especially during the holiday time, and I baked it in a bundt pan and put extra nuts in the bottom of the bundt pan so it would kind of have that nutty coffee cake topping when you turned it out, and then did a cream cheese glaze to go on it.
MEG: Mary Allen and her team in the test kitchen developed many more hummingbird cake inspired recipes that were big hits. Pam Lolley who we spoke to in episode one tested many of those recipes.
PAM: I know that we have turned it into cupcakes, I know it has been a bundt cake with the icing drizzled over the top. We've done a pancake and turned the icing into a cream cheese syrup that was drizzled over the top, but it always had the same components. It would always incorporate the bananas, the pineapple, the spices, which was cinnamon.
MEG: I also found in 2014 we did a power bar, someone did a power bar, do you remember that?
NELLAH: I do remember that, it was developed for breakfast. What a perfect power bar is the hummingbird cake power bar. That's the kind of power bar I want.
MEG: Bound to be healthy, bound to be real healthy.
SID: It's had an impact, in that we've done over 10 different versions of it. We've had a lot of fun with it, and I think the readers have had a lot of fun with it. And even when we've made videos about it, we made a video about it for out 50th anniversary, and it was viewed more than 20 million times on Facebook. And you think about that, this is a recipe that was first published in 1978, and we make a video about it in 2016, and it gets that many views. There is just something about that cake that people really love. And so the impact just continues to resonate with people, and hopefully it will for a long time.
MEG: It sounds like you spent so much time with your recipe, working off of it, if you could say anything to Miss Wiggins, what would you love to talk to her about?
MARY ALLEN: I would love to talk with her about how she did come up with the cake, and I'd like to share with her just all the joy that it's brought to people. When I think of food, it's about really sharing, and sharing in fellowship with other people, and it's an offering to the people that you love. And it sounds like that's the way that she really lived her life.
MEG: As Nellah and I have learned more and more about Mrs. Wiggins, one thing keeps coming to my mind. We talked to almost a dozen people who knew her at different points in her life, and Mrs. Wiggins was exactly what each person needed in their life when they met her. For Dolores Griffith it was a surrogate mother for a college freshman away from home for the first time.
DOLORES: She really calmed my fears and helped me to assimilate into the college life, and I am so grateful for her for doing that, because I think she sensed that I needed some mothering. But she was a wonderful woman, she really was.
MEG: For Joan Steele it was a friend and nurturer to help care for Joan's three children.
JOAN: I trusted her explicitly with my kids, needless to say. It seemed like when we met her, we came into her life when she needed us, and she came into our lives when we needed her.
MEG: And for Southern Living, a deliverer of a recipe so special it's become a regular at southern gatherings, celebrating some of life's best moments.
NELLAH: Probably when she passed away, she had no idea how much joy that had brought to people for birthdays, celebrations, and family reunions.
MEG: 40 years later, she's still a daily source of inspiration for our staff.
PAT: To me Mrs. Wiggins represents a Southern Living reader. She's just doing her thing, cooking for her family, taking care of people, not realizing that she's special at that very moment, so I would love to just tell her, I'd like to give her a hug. I just wanna give her a hug, 'cause I feel like she's our mom, she's our grandmother, and again, she represents what Southern Living was designed for.
PAM: There were a lot of people who submitted recipes over the years over and over again. Miss Wiggins, as far as we know, this is the one recipe that she submitted. And boy, what an impact it had.
MEG: Named for the tiny bird who will appear one second and be gone the next, the hummingbird cake and the legacy of the woman who sent it here is anything but fleeting.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 4
MEG: For 40 years, "Southern Living" only knew the submitter of their most popular recipe as Mrs. L. H. Wiggins, but we found two people who knew her by different names. A lady named Joan Steele knew her by her nickname, Wiggy, when Mrs. Wiggins nannied her children in 1979. Another woman, Dolores Griffith, met Mrs. Wiggins when Dolores was a freshman at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She knew her as Mrs. Eva Wiggins, the housemother of Spencer Dormitory. That was a huge piece of the puzzle. We now had a name for her.
NELLAH: Okay, so she was the dorm mother, the housemother, and Dolores would just spend lots of times with Eva, and she called her Eva, and Eva turned her on, Dolores on to liverwurst and dill pickles. Miss Wiggins loved liverwurst and dill pickles.
MEG: With a first name to work with, Nellah's investigation kicked into high gear.
NELLAH: You know when you do those Myers-Briggs things? That's what I should have been. It says I should have been that.
MEG: A private investigator?
MEG: Or a detective?
NELLAH: Yep, a detective.
MEG: Detective Nellah?
NELLAH: Yep. So, I, um, got my sister-in-law, Amanda, who is a ancestry.com, Mormon Church, she doesn't belong to the Mormon Church, but you know, the Mormon Church has all these databases of ancestry databases. So, Amanda knows all about that, so I called Amanda and Amanda got on it.
MEG: When Mrs. Wiggins sent "Southern Living" the Hummingbird Cake recipe, she signed her submission, "Mrs. L. H. Wiggins." We assume the initials were for her husband's name.
NELLAH: Within an hour, I had, you know, "L. H." stood for "Lewis Henry." I had all these pieces of the puzzle coming together. I found out that she had a daughter, and then the daughter had two children. So, long story short, we, I got in touch with the son. This is through lots of research and ways to go about this kinda thing. So, I got his phone number and his address, and I got her daughter's phone number and address, and so I left him a voicemail, and I was a little nervous. I was thinking, "They probably think we are crazy," and that's how I prefaced the voicemail. "I know this sounds nuts, but I work "for 'Southern Living' magazine, "and we love Mrs. Wiggins, and you know, "she's an icon around here, and her recipe's "been our most popular recipe." I did have his mother's phone number. This is Miss Wiggins' only child, and she's her daughter, and she's 82, now. I started leaving the same goofy message on Friday, this past Friday, and all the sudden, she picks up the phone. Oh my gosh, I am, like, freaking out.
MEG: While you were leaving a message on an answering machine?
NELLAH: Yeah, 'cause she was screening it. She's pretty, you know, sharp for 82 years old. So, her name is Janet. Janet Silcox. So, Mrs. Silcox was screening the call, and then she picked up the phone. We had a nice conversation.
MEG: After their first conversation, Nellah arranged for us to call Janet Silcox, Mrs. Wiggins' daughter, again, this time, with my recorder rolling.
ANSWERING MACHINE: No one is available to take your call. Please leave a message after the tone. (beeps)
NELLAH: Hey, Miss Silcox, this is Nellah McGough at "Southern Living." I just had a few more questions that I wanted to--
JANET: Hello? Hello?
NELLAH: Hey, Miss Silcox, how're you doing?
MEG: Mrs. Wiggins' daughter, Janet, lives outside Roanoke, Virginia. She doesn't remember her mother submitting the Hummingbird Cake recipe, but she does remember eating it.
JANET: Well, um, I really don't remember much about it except that she did make it, and it was good.
MEG: This recipe is "Southern Living's most popular recipe of all time, its most requested. I mean, how do you feel about that, to know that her recipe has been the magazine's greatest one?
JANET: Well, I'm surprised, and I did not know that, but I think it's great, and she would be so proud. (laughs) She was very into cooking. She liked to try new things and so forth. She was a good cook. Just remember being in the kitchen with her when she was baking a lot, and it seemed like she was always cooking. (laughs)
NELLAH: Uh, Miss Silcox, the last time we spoke, this is Nellah, you said that she loved to invite people over and loved to cook for them.
JANET: Yeah, she did. Yeah, she was always having family and friends and so forth over. I can remember a lot of people, in fact, I have a few pictures with everyone around the table, but she did like to have people over for dinner and so forth.
NELLAH: Joan Steele, the lady that your mom nannied for in Roanoke, she says she made amazing fried chicken. Do you remember her cooking fried chicken?
JANET: Uh, I remember liking her fried chicken, yes, and that it was quite good, and I think I picked that up from her.
MEG: Janet also picked up her mother's love of music. Mrs. Wiggins' grandchildren, Janet's children, shared with us through email memories of their Mimi.
NELLAH: I spoke with Brenda, Miss Silcox, and she said that she remembers Mimi, which is what they called her, right?
JANET: Right, yes, it is.
NELLAH: She remembers Mimi liked to wear rings on just about every finger, and she would tap, tap them on the steering wheel to the music in the car.
JANET: Yeah, my mother liked the music, yes, as well as that, I mean, I like music quite well, also, and I have done the same thing, myself. Yes, I can remember that.
NELLAH: Uh, what, she also said that she was a great pianist and organist, loved to play the piano.
JANET: Mm-hmm, yes. Yeah, she played by ear. She could play that. Yeah, she could just go up and down that keyboard pretty fast. She could play, oh gosh, I remember her playing "Alexander's Ragtime Band" one time. Well, not one time, but that was one of the things that she played. Um, and let's see, uh, it seemed like there was a polka. I can't remember, but anyhow, I'd probably remember if I wasn't on the spot, right here.
NELLAH: I can just picture her at the piano playing that "Alexander Ragtime."
JANET: Yeah, I can still see her playing, also. It's actually got me interested in it. She was a happy, she had a happy personality. She liked being with people, you know, and talking with people, and she liked going on trips and so forth, and she liked being a part of church, and of just different, you know, organizations and so forth.
MEG: What do you think your mom would say if she knew how interested "Southern Living" is in her and how successful her recipe has been?
JANET: I think she would be surprised, but I think she would be proud, too, so, I think you'd make her really happy. Mother would be so happy and so proud, and I think her sister will, too.
MEG: Her sister? We had to talk to her sister.
NELLAH: Today, I'm going to try and call Eva's baby sister, who is 96 years old. She will be 97 in August.
MEG: Nellah, with the help of her sister-in-law, Amanda, found Mrs. Wiggins' baby sister, Evelyn Rakes.
NELLAH: I told Amanda that Southern Living's gonna pay for us to go out to lunch or something. It is amazing what you can get off of whitepages.com, too.
MEG: So with phone number in hand, we gave her a call.
NELLAH: I call her Evie. The other one was Eva.
NELLAH: Hi, Miss Rakes? This is Nellah McGough and Meg Pace with Southern Living magazine. I think Miss Silcox said you were 96 years old? Is that right?
EVIE: Yes, yeah. I think that's what they tell me.
NELLAH: It's so nice to talk to you, Miss Rakes.
EVIE: I hope it'll be nice to talk to you. (laughs)
MEG: Mrs. Evie is a little sassy, but agrees to let us record our interview with her.
NELLAH: Well, I know Miss Silcox told you that we absolutely adore your big sister, Ms. Eva Wiggins, and we love that she sent in the Hummingbird Cake recipe.
EVIE: Yeah, yeah, it was the Hummingbird. I'd forgotten what it was. Well, it was a popular recipe, wasn't it? A good cake, too, but she was always baking a cake or something. She was always doing that.
NELLAH: Did your mom, did y'all learn to cook from your mother?
EVIE: Yes, I think we did, because mother was always, she baked a lot of times, and so we learned from her, and Eva was always baking something. More than the rest of us, I think, but she was a good cook, very good cook.
MEG: Did you ever make the Hummingbird Cake, yourself?
EVIE: I think I made it one time, but I can't remember when it, you know, it was a long time ago and all, but it was a good cake. It's nice cake, good cake.
NELLAH: Do you know if she ever submitted any other recipes to another magazine?
EVIE: I don't think she ever did. No, I don't think she ever did. No, I don't think so. I didn't know of any that she did that. If she did, I didn't know it.
NELLAH: Do you remember her, do you remember when she, do you remember her talking about submitting this recipe?
EVIE: Oh, yeah, yes. I remember about her telling about that and sending it in and all. I think I have one of that recipes in their magazine, now. It's put away somewhere. I don't know whether I can remember anything or not. That's been quite a while.
NELLAH: It's been 40 years.
Yeah, it's been quite a while. I think I still have that recipe in the magazine.
MEG: Did she make the Hummingbird Cake very often?
EVIE: She made it several times, I know, but I'm not sure how many.
NELLAH: What else do you remember about Eva?
EVIE: Well, she always liked to pick at people. Head up and tell little funny things, you know, she would always, she threw a fishing worm in the kitchen window at my other sister one day. (laughing) She told her, she said, "Marie," says, "Raise the window; I've got something for ya," and so, Marie did, and when she did, she threw that fishing worm in the window, (laughing) and it made Marie mad. She didn't like it. And I don't blame her. I wouldn't have, either.
EVIE: She was, you know, a jolly person, and everybody liked her, and she loved to bake. She loved to bake cakes and pies.
MEG: After talking to Mrs. Wiggins' friends, grandkids, daughter, and sister, we felt like we knew her. It could also be because she's about all Nellah and I have thought about over the last few months, but we still had one lingering question. If "Southern Living" got the Hummingbird Cake from Mrs. Wiggins, where did she get the recipe?
SEASON 1, EPISODE 3
NELLAH: The last time on Biscuits & Jam, the search for Southern Living's mysterious recipe submitter continues.
MEG: All we know about her at this point is the name she submitted the recipe under, Mrs. L H Wiggins - L H probably, most likely being her husband's name.
NELLAH: Right, I went into our card file, and the one recipe card that was not in there was this cake. From Southern Living, this Biscuits & Jam. We're tracking the origins of the magazine's most popular and mysterious recipe of all time, the hummingbird cake. I'm Meg Pace.
NELLAH: And I'm Nellah McGough.
SID: It was just one little recipe in a story called Making the Best of Bananas, and that's the one that people freaked out over.
NELLAH: She's like an icon around here, but we didn't know anything about her.
SID: We've tried to track her down, and we just came up with nothing. So it really was kind of mysterious.
MEG: After years of fruitless searching for the submitter of the hummingbird cake recipe, Southern Living editor in chief Sid Evans had one more idea.
SID: I put something in my letter about it.
MEG: In his monthly magazine column, Sid wrote about Mrs. Wiggins' iconic layer cake, and the legacy it's left on this publication and its readers. He mentioned that while the cake has become a celebrity, the woman who sent it here has remained an enigma.
SID: Ms. Wiggins as far as we know, this is the one recipe that she submitted. And boy what an impact it had.
MEG: And then we got our first tip.
SID: We got some feedback from the readers from two readers in particular who said they knew her.
MEG: After years of searching for anyone who knew Mrs. L H Wiggins, it looks like we had finally found not one but two people who knew her. The first email hit Sid's inbox the Monday after the issue containing his letter hit newsstands. The subject line - information about Mrs. L H Wiggins.
SID: We felt like we had struck gold.
MEG: In the email, Dolores Griffith of Plymouth, North Carolina wrote that she knew Mrs. Wiggins.
SID: It was very exciting to get that note.
MEG: One of the few things we knew about Mrs. Wiggins was that she worked at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro when she sent Southern Living the hummingbird cake recipe. Dolores wrote that she met Mrs. Wiggins as a freshman there.
SID: We were skeptical. Yes, we thought, could this have been made up? Is she just playing a game with us? You don't really know.
MEG: Ever the journalist, editors at Southern Living were cautious, knowing this email could be too good to be true.
SID: We had to be skeptical. We'd been looking for this for so long.
MEG: So Nellah and I gave Dolores a call. [phone ringing]
NELLAH: Hi, Dolores. This Nellah and Meg.
DOLORES: Hello, how are you?
MEG: Good, how are you doing?
DOLORES: I'm doing great. It's so good to finally talk to you after all these emails. [laughs]
NELLAH: I know, I know. Can you believe all of this, Dolores?
DOLORES: No, I have been telling so many people about it because it is such an interesting thing how one little bit of information has just blossomed into all of this story. It's just, it's incredible. [laughs]
NELLAH: I know.
MEG: And just as the hummingbird cake seemed destined for the pages of Southern Living, Dolores' seeing Sid's note was equally as serendipitous.
DOLORES: So glad that I actually late one night, just couldn't sleep and picked up the Southern Living for this month and started browsing through. And the strange thing is I rarely ever read the editor's note. I go straight to the recipes. [laughs]
DOLORES: And when I saw it, I don't know why, something just told me to read that little article. And when I started reading it, and they were talking about how the only thing we know about Mrs. Wiggins is that she was a housemother at University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and I thought to myself, I think I know this woman.
MEG: So Dolores filled us in on the Mrs. Wiggins she knew.
DOLORES: She was just an interesting person, and she was the typical housemother, no doubt about it. She took those freshmen girls under her wing, including me, [laughs] and I didn't live in the dorm that she was a housemother at, but she really gave me some confidence, and she knew that I think I was a little country girl come to the big city for the first time. And she kind of knew that I was a little bit not ready for the big world. And she did take the time to kind of help to get me into the routine of college. And I am so grateful for her for that because she did treat me like I was her daughter sort of. So it was kind of like a proxy mother when I was aware from home. So I really had a bond with her. But I remember her very well and a lot of good memories.
NELLAH: Well that's great information you just gave us [laughs]. That is really, that's great Dolores. You said that she must have had a hot plate in her room because she always liked to cook.
DOLORES: Yes, I was so, it was so strange because she had this little sitting room outside, off the dorm lobby. And many times when I would come in to work, if she would open her door and peak out and not see anyone out there, she'd say, come here just a minute. She'd invite me in. And knowing that I was supposed to be on duty answering the phones and stuff. And yet, she'd still let me come in her little sitting room, and we'd talk about this and that. And one day she just said, are you hungry? Do you want a snack? And she pulled this drawer out of this bureau, and it was loaded down with canned goods and pickles and jars of preserves, all kinds of stuff. And I thought to myself, this is very strange. She must do a lot of cooking and things in her room because why would anybody have all these things in her drawer [laughs]. Well, she pulled out a jar of dill pickles, and she said, do you like liverwurst. And I thought to myself, hm, I don't know. I don't think I've ever had it. And so she said, well, let's make a liverwurst and dill pickle sandwich. So she got all the ingredients together and whipped out the sandwich, and she offered me half of it. And I thought, hm, that's pretty good. Do you know I've been eating liverwurst and dill pickle sandwiches ever since? [Nellah laughs] And thank you to Mrs. Wiggins for introducing me to that [laughs].
MEG: A woman who wouldn't even let the lack of a kitchen stand in her way of making good food. Dolores met Mrs. Wiggins in 1969. We know that she was still working as a housemother when she submitted her recipe to Southern Living, but shortly after, she moved on to a new job, and that's where the second letter comes in. A day after we heard from Dolores, we got another email.
SID: She wrote in out of the blue and said that she knew Ms. Wiggins, called her Wiggy that she had taken care of her kids that she was like family. She knew the cake.
JOAN: Hi, my name is Joan Steele, and Mrs. Wiggins was my nanny when my youngest daughter was a baby.
MEG: Just like Dolores, Joan found out about our search by happenstance.
JOAN: For years, I have seen this hummingbird cake in your publication, and I was with some friends of mine several years ago, and they were talking about this hummingbird cake, and I said, well, you know, the lady that sent that recipe in used to be my nanny, and I told them the story of Wiggy. So when your February issue came out, my friends in Charleston called me, and she said you have got to contact Southern Living. They are asking for anybody who knows anything about this lady to contact them.
MEG: Joan met Mrs. Wiggins, who she called Wiggy, a year after she submitted the hummingbird cake to Southern Living.
JOAN: We met her in the spring of '79, and when she baked the cake for us, she did bake the cake for us, and when she brought the cake over, she brought the magazine that had her recipe published in it. She was so proud of that, and she told me. She says, look at this. They even published my recipe.
MEG: Joan also spoke of Mrs. Wiggins' love of cooking.
JOAN: When Wiggy would come to my house to take care of my kids, she would walk in with bags full of groceries. And she would cook dinner. She loved to cook. And I used to say to her, let me, just tell me what you need, and I'll get it from the grocery store. And I'll have it here. No, no, no, no, no, she'd say. I don't know what I want to make next time. [Meg laughs] And my children remember her as being such a good cook. She made the best fried chicken.
MEG: Joan and Delores also both remember her for the way she dressed. Here's Dolores again.
DOLORES: But I remember she had a fur coat that she always wore. It was like a little jacket that she would wear in the winter, just very meticulous about her appearance. And she always wore lipstick. She didn't want to be seen without that. [Nellah laughs] But she was just a very sophisticated looking woman. She just had this presence about her. She was rather tall. When she walked in a room, you knew she was there. [laughs] If think about her in my mind's eye, the movie, Mrs. Doubtfire, she didn't exactly look in the face like Mrs. Doubtfire, but she always wore a skirt and blouse and a sweater or a dress and a sweater. She never wore pants of any kind. She always had that smile on her face and a little giggle. We knew her about two, maybe 2 1/2 years, and we moved to Armonk, New York. My regret is I had a picture of her standing on the front porch, holding the baby and my two older kids beside her. I can see that in my mind now. But unfortunately, I had a fire in my home several years ago and lost everything, and so all my pictures are gone. I don't have that picture, but I can see it my mind.
MEG: Through an old yearbook from UNC Greensboro, Nellah was able to track down a photo of Mrs. Wiggins. She's standing in a group of about half a dozen other housemothers at the university. We sent the photo to both Joan and Dolores to see if they could correctly identify her. It was kind of our version of a line up. And they did, both pointing at the tall woman standing toward the back with a fur stole around her shoulder.
DOLORES: She was always dressed to the nines.
MEG: And then Dolores gave us one more tidbit about Mrs. L H Wiggins, her full name.
NELLAH: I think you have the critical piece of the puzzle. [Dolores laughs] We didn't know her name. We had no idea her name was Eva.
DOLORES: Right, right.
NELLAH: And her first name is, it looks like Chloe, but it's pronounced Chlo.
NELLAH: And so that was just a huge, though, a huge thing to know that her name was Eva.
MEG: Eva Wiggins, we had a name.
NELLAH: That was a huge piece of the puzzle.
MEG: Once Nellah had that, the investigation went into overdrive.
NELLAH: So I got my sister-in-law Amanda who is a ancenstry.com Mormon church. She doesn't belong to the Mormon church, but, you know, the Mormon Church has all these databases of ancestry databases. Oh, I didn't know that. So Amanda knows all about that. So I called Amanda, and Amanda got on it and quickly, within an hour, I had L H stood for Lewis Henry. I had all these pieces of the puzzle coming together. I found out that she had a daughter.
MEG: Next time on Biscuits & Jam.
NELLAH: This is Mrs. Wiggins' only child and she's her daughter.
NELLAH: And she's 82 now. I started leaving the same goofy message on Friday, and I was a little nervous. I was thinking, they probably think we are crazy, and that's how I prefaced the voicemail [laughs]. I know this sounds nuts, but I work for Southern Living Magazine, and we love Mrs. Wiggins. And all of a sudden, she picks up the phone. Oh my gosh, I am like freaking out.
MEG: Biscuits & Jam is produced by myself, Meg Pace with Nellah McGough. Executive producer is Mike Grady and Sid Evans. Sound mixing by Jason Keener. For photos, videos and the hummingbird cake recipe, visit our website southernliving.com/culture/podcast. Thanks to our digital editor, Abbi Wilt and fellow Jorie McDonald for maintaining that page for us. Our logo and art is by Miles Kane. As always, thanks to our editor in chief Sid and executive editor Krissy Tiglias for giving us this assignment. And special thanks to Dolores Griffith, Joan Steele, and Nellah's sister-in-law, Amanda McGough, for her help with research.
NELLAH: Be sure to subscribe to Biscuits & Jam wherever you get your podcasts so you never miss an episode. And if you like what you're hearing, leave us a review. It helps other folks find our story. And we think everyone should know about Mrs. Wiggins and her decadent hummingbird cake.
MEG: And here is another helping of Nellah.
NELLAH: You know Publishers Clearing House?
MEG: Mm-hmm You know, I swear, I've kind of gotten wrapped up in that stupid thing recently, and I have bought some, I have bought some dumb from the Publishers Clearing House [Meg laughs] Thinking I'm gonna' have that guy come up to my front door [laughs]. Oh my Lord, I bought like this mat for the front door. It's really cute. But I bought a couple of things, and I'm thinking, Nellah, that is so stupid.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 2
NELLAH: It turned out to be our most popular recipe ever. Which is kind of crazy, but it did.
MEG: Last week on Biscuits and Jam…
SID: It was just one little recipe in a story called Making the Best Bananas, with a bunch of other banana recipes AND that's the one that people freaked out over.
NELLAH: So we're talking about Mrs. L.H. Wiggins and the Hummingbird Cake. She's like an icon around here, but we didn't know anything about her.
SID: We had actually looked into it a number of times. I mean we tried to track her down. We had put out calls on Facebook looking for Mrs. Wiggins. We had looked into our recipe files here, tried to find if she had ever submitted other recipes. And, we just came up with nothing. So, it really was kind of mysterious.
MEG: This is Biscuits and Jam, a podcast from Southern Living. We're finding the story behind Southern Living's most popular and mysterious recipe of all time, the iconic Hummingbird Cake. I'm Meg Pace.
NELLAH: And I'm Nellah McGough.
MEG: All right, so here we go, episode two. How you feeling?
NELLAH: Good. Okay.
MEG: So, first if you're listening to this, go back and listen to episode one so you're up to speed on our journey. Nellah and I are trying to find out who exactly is the woman who submitted a recipe to Southern Living in 1978. It went on to become this magazine's most requested and popular recipe in its history. What are we talking about Nellah?
NELLAH: The Hummingbird Cake.
MEG: Oh yes. All we know about her at this point is the name she submitted the recipe under, Mrs. L.H. Wiggins. L.H. most likely being her husband's initials, right?
NELLAH: Right, and I figured that's what it was because my grandfather's initials are L. H. And I thought - that's got to be her husband's initials.
MEG: Because it was common for women to write their name using their husband's initials.
NELLAH: That's exactly right.
MEG: Okay, so let's go back to when our editor-in-chief, Sid Evans, made the decision to republish the original 1978 Hummingbird Cake recipe. Here's Sid.
SID: Well, it was the 40th anniversary of the Hummingbird Cake, right? So, it was first published in February of 1978, we wanted to come back in February of 2018 and do something special, so we ran a Hummingbird Cake on the cover.
MEG: So I'm going to interject here. If you haven't seen this cover, go check it out on our website. It is beautiful: three moist layers sandwiched between cream cheese frosting, and Southern pecans circle the top. It was photographed against a bright, bluish-green background that really makes this white cake pop off the page. Nellah, how would you describe this cover?
MEG: I love that word.
NELLAH: Yeah, I mean totally. And, I mean, it looks moist, it looks great, it looks springy and I love the daffodils on the cover. Are those daffodils? [laughs] What are those things?
MEG: I don't know. [laughing]
NELLAH: I think they are. I'm not a garden expert. Well I love them, whatever they are. Anyway, it's really... It's so yummy, and it looks like you could just dig in right there on that cover.
MEG: Oh yes, that icing is just perfect. Okay, back to Sid.
SID: We ran a Hummingbird Cake on the cover to celebrate, and then we put a writer on it named Kathleen Purvis who lives in North Carolina. As far as we knew, Mrs. Wiggins was from Greensboro, North Carolina, and we asked Purvis to try and really track it down, and track down the origins of the story, find out what she could about Mrs. Wiggins, and she found out a few things, but she really couldn't solve the puzzle.
MEG: All Kathleen had to go on was a name: Mrs. L.H. Wiggins, and a return address from 1978 that was for a dorm at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Here's what Kathleen found out. Mrs. Wiggins was a widow from Virginia who worked as a housemother at a dorm at UNC Greensboro, hence that return address. She died in 1995 at 81. That's all we had to go on, right?
NELLAH: Right. That wasn't a lot. You know, it was a little bit, but, you know, there was still a lot of digging to do.
MEG: What's essentially initials, and a return address for a dorm, I feel like we're looking for a needle in the haystack. This is not the first time Southern Living has tried to find their mystery recipe submitter. Recently we sat down with one of our assistant food editors, who was first given this assignment five years ago. Here's Pat York.
PAT: I think it was on the 35th anniversary when Hunter Lewis, who was the food editor at the time, said, "Find Mrs. Wiggins." And that's when we started this search that's lasted for years.
MEG: Pat and her team tried everything they could think of.
PAT: And that's when we first started Facebooking, Southern Living having a Facebook page. And I believe it was Donna Florio, one of our food editors, she was on Facebook. So she kind of put it out there to everybody who followed us, "If you know Mrs. Wiggins, "if you know anything about her." And I even went through city directories, old phone books, things like that, from Greensboro UNC, where she was living, trying to find her. And of course we didn't find anything.
MEG: I mean, that sounds like some real gumshoe journalism.
NELLAH: Right, right.
MEG: But still nothing on Mrs. L.H. Wiggins or her Hummingbird Cake.
MEG: So, editors at Southern Living aren't the only ones curious about her, either.
NELLAH: The newspaper in Greensboro, maybe 2010, several years ago, put out something in their newspaper asking if anyone knew Mrs. Wiggins. So, they were looking for her, too. And nobody ever wrote in about it. About her.
MEG: How long ago was that?
NELLAH: I need to look back on that, but I—
MEG: It was a few years ago.
NELLAH: It was a few years ago. So other people have looked for her, too. We've always wondered who she was.
MEG: Southern Living has a long tradition of receiving and printing recipes submitted by readers. And a lot of those readers become regular submitters. Here's assistant food editor Pat York again.
PAT: Our pages are full of people, they're full of people, and there are people who have submitted, and have had published, more than one recipe. There's a lady named Carolyn Nobles that, I mean, she submitted tons of them.
MEG: So Nellah, you got the idea to dig through our catalog of reader-submitted recipes to find anymore of Mrs. Wiggins' footprints, starting with her original submission of the Hummingbird Cake.
MEG: But that trail went cold quick.
NELLAH: Yeah. She did not submit anything else that we can find, that she ever, yeah, never submitted another recipe to Southern Living.
MEG: And when you went to look for the Hummingbird Cake Recipe, it's not there.
NELLAH: It's not there. We keep a card file of these recipes, and it was not there, that actual, that one card, of all those cards, of that year, and it wasn't there. [laughs] It was like, she's really making us work hard to find her. [laughs]
MEG: You scoured our archives, and then reached out to former Southern Living editors.
NELLAH: So I also spoke to Jean Liles, who was in our test kitchen at the time. And she doesn't believe she ever sent in another recipe. So I guess this is the only time she ever sent a recipe in to anyone.
PAT: I wonder what prompted her to do that.
NELLAH: I don't know.
MEG: Now what? With few new clues, and a number of dead ends, our editor-in-chief had one more idea. He used his monthly column in the February 2018 issue to make a call-out.
SID: So I put something in my letter about it, and I think that's what triggered it, is we got some feedback from the readers, from two readers in particular, who said they knew her.
MEG: Next time on Biscuits and Jam - the Joan letter.
SID: It was an email. She wrote in out of the blue, and said that... That she knew Miss Wiggins, called her Wiggy, that she had taken care of her kids, that she was like family, she knew the cake, and we, you know, we felt like we had struck gold. It was very exciting.
MEG: Oh Nellah, I feel like we're cooking with grease now.
NELLAH: Yep, yep. It just takes one little, one more piece of the puzzle, to start filling that thing in. And it started with Wiggy. And Joan.
MEG: Wiggy and Joan. Biscuits and Jam is produced by myself, Meg Pace, with Nellah McGough. Executive producers Mike Grady and Sid Evans. Sound mixing by Jason Keener. You can check out our website at southernliving.com/culture/podcast. There you can find photos, videos, and the recipe for the Hummingbird Cake. Thanks to digital editor Abbi Wilt for maintaining our webpage for us. Our logo and art is by Miles Cain. Thanks to Sid, Southern Living's editor-in-chief, and Executive Editor Krissy Tiglias for letting Nellah and me spend part of our workday eating cake, all in the name of research. Also special thanks to Pat York for her help with this episode.
NELLAH: Be sure to subscribe to Biscuits and Jam wherever you get your podcasts, so you never miss an episode. See y'all next time.
MEG: Okay Nellah, you know I have to do it. I have to give the people an extra slice of you.
NELLAH: [laughs] Oh gosh.
MEG: If I don't wear pantyhose to church and I'm wearing a dress, my grandmother is going say something.
NELLEH: [laughs] Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. I haven't put on a pair of pantyhose in... A decade, probably.
MEG: I mean, that's why I don't go to church with my grandmother.
NELLAH: That's right.
MEG: So I don't have to put those pantyhose on.
NELLAH: Oh my gosh. Do they even still make pantyhose?
NELLAH: I guess they do. [laughs]
MEG: Yeah, because we recently brought in some kids, and put pantyhose in front of them to see if they even knew what they were. And they had no idea. Except one little girl said that this is what her grandmother wears to just like keep everything in. [laughs]
NELLAH: That's hilarious. Wonder what that means. What's her grandma keeping in those pantyhose? That's the follow-up question. [laughs] Stuff just comes outta my mouth, and I [laughs]—
MEG: I know, that's why we love you.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 1
INTRO: This recipe just has stood out for some reason. There was something about it. It is the most popular recipe in the history of Southern Living. But no one knows where it came from. Which is kinda crazy, but it did. It's three layers of moist, sweet perfection. The riper the banana, the sweeter. It's a cake for everyone. It's topped with a healthy, or should I say unhealthy amount of cream cheese frosting and Southern pecans. So what is it? There's something kind of mysterious and interesting about the name Hummingbird Cake. Its origins have been a mystery to Southern Living for 40 years, since the original recipe was submitted by a reader. Nobody knew anything about her. So we're talkin' about Mrs. L. H. Wiggins and the Hummingbird Cake. It turned out to be our most popular recipe ever. We teamed up to find the woman behind those initials, whose submission in 1978 had an impact on Southern Living magazine that no editor at the time could have imagined.
MEG: She's like an icon around here but we didn't know anything about her. Let's start from the beginning. So Southern Living first published the recipe 40 years ago?
NELLAH: Yep, February of '78.
MEG: Even before I started working at Southern Living, I can remember all of the different Hummingbird recipes that would come in the magazine. Can you kind of describe to me, I guess, the interest around this recipe? Why do we think people love it? It feels like it's kind of gotten a life of its own.
NELLAH: I think it's just one of those flukes. That, number one, it's good. And it's a cake to take to church suppers
or to funerals [laughs], or whatever, you know? Holidays, special occasions. It's just a really tasty cake.
MEG: Okay, so I realize that some of our listeners may have not had the chance yet to try a moist slice of the Hummingbird cake, so Nellah and I stopped by the Southern Living test kitchen to have an expert weigh in.
PAM: I'm Pam Lolley. I worked in the Southern Living test kitchen for 13 years and have been in the overall food studios for the past two years.
MEG: Pam tests, cooks, and creates recipes for Southern Living. She's one of the reasons we like to call this 'the South's most trusted kitchen.' She knows her stuff, and after years of testing variations of this recipe, she knows the Hummingbird cake. Tell me your first experience with the Hummingbird cake recipe.
PAM: The first experience with the Hummingbird cake, I actually made it before I worked here. And it was a favorite recipe of mine before I began working for Southern Living.
MEG: Was it the Southern Living recipe that you made?
PAM: It was, out of their, the magazine. I was a longtime subscriber.
MEG: How would you describe the Hummingbird cake? What makes it different from other cakes or recipes?
PAM: You know, it's one of those cakes that is just so moist and that's because of the oil. It uses oil rather than butter. And the undrained pineapple also adds to the moistness, and so does the mashed bananas. And just all of those flavors work so well together.
MEG: The Hummingbird cake is three moist cake layers with cream cheese frosting in between the layers and spread across the top and sides of the cake. It's finished with chopped pecans pressed into the frosting around the side, and pecan halves decorate the top. Over the years, Pam has tested too many recipes to count, but this one, the Hummingbird cake? It's special.
PAM: Back in 1978, when they first tested it, there was a rating system then. You would give a recipe, one being a failure, two being a good solid recipe, two plus being it was really good, but if a recipe got a three, that was the highest rating it could get, and there were not very many threes that would be given out during a year. And I think that the test kitchen, when they tried this cake and gave it a three, they raved about it and then raved about it in the magazine, and when that happened, I think it just took off.
JEAN: In fact, I was the one who instigated the rating system. If I had ever to do over again, I would have gone one, two, three, four, five. I'm Jean Wickstrom Liles. I was the senior foods editor at Southern Living. I joined the magazine in 1972. I retired in 1992.
MEG: Jean Wickstrom Liles is what I have always pictured when I thought of magazine editors. Glamorous, smart, and innovative. And she's a legend around here.
PAT: I am Pat York, I'm an assistant food editor. I have been with the magazine since '06.
MEG: Nellah and I brought Jean and Pat into our recording booth one day to give us the scoop on the recipe's life within the pages of Southern Living and how it scored the test kitchen's revered three rating.
PAM: I know not a lot of threes were given out.
JEAN: Yes, you're right, 'cause that was our highest. Once we established a rating system, that was the highest we gave. We enjoyed when we gave, you know, the ultimate three, and also knew then we wouldn't have to retest that.
MEG: Do you remember the recipe coming in?
JEAN: I can't say I remember when it came in because we would get sometimes a thousand recipes a month coming in because reader recipes, as far as I'm concerned, was really the magic of Southern Living back in those early, early years.
MEG: So what, how did you choose what recipes to test? How would the Hummingbird cake recipe come to the top of like, "Okay, we need to test this"?
JEAN: Well, as we were planning our stories each month, we would select topics that we wanted to cover that month, and of course, this one happened to be a story on bananas. And so, the editor who worked on this particular story, she would go through the files and I suppose the idea of the hummingbird, and there were bananas in that recipe, intrigued that editor and she just happened to pull that recipe.
SID: One funny thing about this whole thing is that it's not like we put the Hummingbird cake on the cover in that issue, way back when.
MEG: Sid Evans, Editor in Chief of Southern Living.
SID: It was just one little recipe in a story called Making the Best of Bananas, with a bunch of other banana recipes. And that's the one that people freaked out over. I mean, it was on page 206. It was buried in the, way back, in the back.
NELLAH: And it was black and white.
SID: Yeah, right, it was black and white with a black and white picture. So I mean, you know, there, now, there was a picture of the cake.
MEG: But it's not even a very big picture.
SID: No, uh-uh. So I think that makes it all the more interesting.
MEG: How would you describe the legend around the Hummingbird cake?
PAM: I think the legend was born when it was published in 1978. That came out, it got a three, people started talkin', people made it, it started showin' up at parties and potlucks and church suppers, and it just kind of took a life of its own. And when Southern Living, at the time, they had somebody that would man the phones and answer readers' comments, and would actually make copies of recipes for 'em, and I just think it grew from there. Just when it published in '78, it just kind of took on a life of its own.
NELLAH: People loved it and they just requested it. I don't know how that happens, but it just does, 'cause we have, you know, thousands of awesome recipes in the magazine. But this is just one that has stood out. And maybe it's because there was somewhat of a mystery about it too.
MEG: So who is this recipe's mystery submitter? Mrs. L. H. Wiggins.
SID: We had actually looked into it a number of times. I mean, we've tried to track her down. We had put out calls on Facebook looking for Miss Wiggins. We had looked into our recipe files here, tried to find if she had ever submitted other recipes. And we just came up with nothing. So it really was kind of mysterious.
MEG: And then Nellah got on the case.
Has this episode made you hungry? Make your own Hummingbird Cake with Mrs. L. H. Wiggins' original recipe, or watch the video below:
Biscuits & Jam is produced by Meg Pace and Nellah McGough, with Executive Producers Mike Grady and Sid Evans. Sound mixing by Jason Keener.