Forty years later, we have yet to untangle the story behind our most popular three-layer dessert.
It’s hard to tell the story of Southern food sometimes. Our recipe boxes are littered with half-truths, sort-of-remembered details, and threats of “I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you.” Red velvet cake isn’t Southern—it started as Waldorf Astoria cake. The backstory: Someone got charged a mint for the hotel’s recipe and then shared it for revenge. It’s the forerunner to the notorious Neiman Marcus cookie recipe, which isn’t from the Dallas-based department store either. Notice a pattern here?
This leads us to the Hummingbird Cake, which was first submitted to Southern Living in 1978 by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina, and has become the magazine’s most popular recipe since. Indisputably, it is a beautiful cake: three layers flavored with canned pineapple and bananas and topped with Cream Cheese Frosting. The oil-and-egg batter is simply stirred together, skipping the creaming business and creating a moist cake that keeps well. And who can resist that name?
Dig deeper, though, and the story doesn’t hum smoothly. Only a little is known about Mrs. Wiggins: She was a widow from Virginia who evidently worked as a housemother at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and she died in 1995 at the age of 81. But we don’t really know much more beyond that. Carl Wilson of the Greensboro News & Record recalls the paper running a story in 2014 asking for anyone who knew her, but they didn’t get a single reply. He says, “The mystery of Mrs. L.H. Wiggins still remains.”
Then there’s the cake itself. Mrs. Wiggins may have been the first to create a layered version, but she wasn’t the first to make the cake. It started as a tube cake with no icing. Simple spiced cakes with canned pineapple and bananas popped up in community cookbooks throughout the early 20th century, when these once-exotic fruits became more commonplace in grocery stores, like Publix. The recipes usually sported names like A Cake that Lasts (most likely because it stayed moist and kept well) or Bird of Paradise Cake.
Helen Moore, the former food editor of The Charlotte Observer, ran a version of the dessert on September 7, 1969, noting, “I came across a recipe called Doctor Bird Cake.” She also explained that the doctorbird is a nickname given to the swallow-tailed hummingbird, Jamaica’s national bird. The cake was baked in an 8-inch tube pan, and it included undrained, canned crushed pineapple (such as Publix Crushed Pineapple in Pineapple Juice); diced bananas; and no frosting.
In 1980, Moore repeated the recipe, this time explaining that it came in a letter from a Jamaican airline, apparently part of a press packet promoting island trips. In this version, though, the tube pan had grown to 10 inches, the bananas were mashed instead of sliced, the batter included 2 cups of chopped nuts, and the cake now had a rich cream cheese frosting.
Here we are, 40 years later but no closer to the truth. Was the cake’s origin really Jamaican, or was it a convenient recipe that sounded somewhat tropical? Mrs. Wiggins flitted into our lives and moved on quickly, just like hummingbirds in the summertime. She left us with a nice cake, though. That’s plenty to remember her by.