Hummingbird Cake

A cake with a history nobody bothered to look up.

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Hummingbird Cake by Hank Hession, Upstate Options Magazine

Hummingbird cake is a spice cake made with bananas, pineapples, and pecans or walnuts, and is usually covered in cream cheese frosting.

It can be either a layer cake or a tube cake. It’s traditionally associated with the South. And nobody is entirely sure why it’s called hummingbird cake, but it supposedly has something to do with the sweetness and hummingbirds being attracted to sweet things.

This much is true. But here are some other statements about hummingbird cake from other sites around the web:

  • “Food historians generally cite Mrs. L.H. Wiggin’s recipe published in the February 1978 issue of Southern Living magazine (p. 206) as the first printed reference to ‘Hummingbird Cake.'” — Squidoo
  • “Allow us to drop some knowledge on you regarding the hummingbird cake. The original was a blue-ribbon winner at county fairs for Mrs. L.H. Wiggins. As a result, Wiggins submitted the recipe to Southern Living magazine in 1978.” — Hungry-Girl
  • “The Hummingbird Cake first achieved mass appeal after it was submitted to Southern Living Magazine in February of 1978, by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro North Carolina.” — Yahoo! Voices
  • Southern Living Magazine is credited with first publishing Hummingbird Cake recipe in 1978, submitted by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, N.C.” — Just a Pinch Recipes
  • “We also know that the recipe was submitted by a Mrs. L. H. Wiggins of Greensboro North Carolina and consists of two layers of cake full of chopped pecans, crushed pineapple, and mashed bananas that are filled and frosted with a delicious cream cheese icing.” — Joy of Baking (emphasis added)

Well, let me say this about that:

And I should emphasize that Southern Living never made any of these claims. This is all a veneer added by a poor game of telephone across recipe blogs.

Southern Living tells the story plainly: Mrs. L.H. Wiggins submitted a recipe for three-layer (c’mon, now, Joy of Baking, I expect better from you) hummingbird cake that appeared in the February 1978 edition of Southern Living. The recipe on the card here is identical.

That page in its entirety is on their site, but since the card from the recipe box doesn’t include the cream cheese frosting recipe, here’s that portion:

Cream Cheese Frosting:

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 (16-ounce) packages powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Combine cream cheese and butter; cream until smooth. Add powdered sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla. Yield: enough for a 3-layer cake.

Mrs. L.H. Wiggins,
Greensboro, North Carolina.

 
But did she create it? No.

Popularize it? Not really, it was pretty widely known before then. (Actually, one source claims it’s from the mid-19th century, which we’ll come back to.)

Name it? Nope. It had that name for over a decade, at least.

For example, here’s one from the November 23, 1975 edition of the Corsicana (Texas) Daily Sun:

HUMMINGBIRD CAKE

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups sugar
1-1/4 cups cooking oil
3 eggs
1 teaspoon butter flavoring
1 small can crushed pineapple, not drained
3 small bananas, mashed
1 cup pecans, chopped

Sift first five ingredients together then add the cooking oil and all other ingredients. Cook in a greased and floured tube pan for one hour and five minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool one hour in pan.

Lena Kerley
311 Donaldson
Kerens, Texas

 
Here’s one from the April 30, 1972 edition of the Middletown (New York) Times Herald Record:

Hummingbird cake

Ingredients: 3 c. flour, 1 t. baking soda, 1 t. cinnamon, 1 t. salt, 2 c. sugar, 1-1/2 c. Crisco oil, 1 can (8-1/2 oz.) crushed pineapple with juice, 1-1/2 t. vanilla, 3 unbeaten eggs, 2 large bananas, diced, 1-2 c. chopped nuts (optional).

Instructions: Mix dry ingredients in large bowl. Add everything else and mix well, don’t beat! Bake in greased floured tube pan at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 20 minutes. Cake will crack on top.

Mrs. Carl A. Sachs Jr.
RD 6, 12 Greenway Terrace
Middletown, New York

 
I could go on for hours–it wasn’t just New York and Texas. Before 1978, there are mentions of this cake in newspapers from Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee, Virginia, Indiana, and Maryland, and that was just from searching one source. This was not an arcane recipe suddenly popularized by Southern Living.

The only way you could not know this recipe was older was not to look.

The actual earliest mention I’ve been able to find is from the June 28, 1963 edition of the Port Neches (Texas) Midcounty Chronicle, submitted by “Homemaker of the Week” Nanette DeRoche of 1812 Fairbanks, Nederland:

HUMMINGBIRD CAKE

3 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1-1/ 2 cups cooking oil
2 eggs
1 (8-oz.) can crushed pineapple (including juice)
1 cup chopped nuts
2 cups bananas, diced

Combine dry ingredients by hand. Add oil and beat eggs. (Mixture will be stiff.) Add pineapple, nuts, bananas and vanilla. Bake at 350 degrees in three greased and floured 9 inch cake pans for 25 minutes. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes.

ICING

2 (8-oz.) pkgs. cream cheese
1 cup butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 boxes confectioners sugar
1 cup nuts

Mix cream cheese, butter, vanilla and confectioner’s sugar together until light and fluffy. Spread on cake and top with nuts. Icing recipe may be cut in half if you don’t like very thick icing.

 
DeRoche doesn’t claim to have invented the cake, but for what it’s worth, at the time of the article, she was the mother of a 5-year-old girl and had served a tour of duty as a jet mechanic for the Air Force between starting and continuing a degree in Speech and Hearing from Lamar University.

As for the theory that the cake is from the 19th century, I can’t find anything resembling the cake in any source anywhere near the 19th century, let alone the middle of that century. Until the 1880s, it would be rare to find either pineapples or bananas, let alone both in one place. And the mid-19th century?

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but until you can show me the recipe, I’m saying I don’t believe it.

The earliest cake I’ve seen that even might be similar is from the advertisement to the right, from the May 16, 1935 edition of The Newburgh (New York) News.

Frankly, Mrs. Wiggins would probably be horrified by this whole affair. She was sharing a recipe she liked, not claiming to be the champion of hummingbird cake for all time.

And now, just for fun, here’s a mention of the cake from an engagement party (at least, I think that’s what it is) from the June 21, 1977 Burlington (North Carolina) Times-News. I normally wouldn’t include something this long, but I just have to because of all of the details about the party. White tablecloth, denim placemats, and red handkerchief napkins anyone?

Rudd-Davis Honored

Miss Sandra Rudd and Larry Davis were honored Friday evening with a garden buffet dinner hosted by Paul and Mary Patterson at their home in Roxboro.

Mrs. Patterson will register guests at the wedding of Miss Rudd and Mr. Davis, which will be held August 6 at the home of the bride-elect’s grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Conally Long of Prospect Hill.

Upon her arrival, the bride-elect was presented a long-stemmed rose which complemented the white sun-back dress trimmed in red which she chose for the occasion.

The buffet table was covered with a white tablecloth centered with a carved watermelon surrounded by greenery and filled with an assortment of fruits, melon balls and mint.

Party tables were accented by denim place mats with red bandana napkins and were centered with red candles in hurricane globes.

The buffet dinner consisted of baked ham, chicken salad, deviled eggs, potato salad, marinated vegetables, an assortment of meat and vegetable casseroles, congealed salads, pickles, raw vegetables, homemade rolls, coconut and chocolate meringue pies, chocolate and hummingbird cake and iced tea.

Following dinner, the couple was presented an array of gifts, to which the host and hostess added a pewter goblet in their chosen pattern.

Attending from Burlington were Mr. and Mrs. W. Franklin Rudd, parents of the bride-elect.

 

From a box sold in Martinez, California.

Hummingbird Cake

3 c. flour
2 c. sugar
1 t. each baking soda, salt, cinnamon
3 eggs, beaten
1 c. vegetable oil
1-1/2 t. vanilla
1 c. (8 ounces) crushed pineapple, drained
1 c. chopped pecans or walnuts
2 c. mashed bananas
cream cheese frosting, if you like

Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl; add eggs and oil, stirring until dry ingredients are moistened. Stir in vanilla, pineapple, 1 c. pecans and bananas. Spoon batter into 3 greased pans.

Bake 350 deg. for 24 to 35 minutes at 350 deg.



8 Comments

  1. Meryl

    The first picture on this post of the hand written recipe for Hummingbird-cake is my mom’s! As in – that’s actually her handwriting! At one point or another my sister had a site with all of our family recipes posted on it. Do you remember where you found that one? Was it just a Google search?

    • Huh! The recipe card itself? I scanned it from a recipe box sold in Martinez, California… would her card have been in there? Very cool!

    • Meryl

      She lived in Berkeley for about 4 years and San Diego for 3, so I guess it’s possible. Was it a recipe box from a thrift shop kind of place?

  2. Carla

    COOL, and interesting! …The patina of history. We’re glad you found it. We made it this Thanksgiving. Love the Blog post.
    Meryl’s Mom. 🙂

    • Wow, this is the first time this has happened–immensely cool! Is there anything else you can tell me about your memories of the recipe so I can add it to the post?

      And… would you like your recipe back?! You’re welcome to it… my goal is to rescue *homeless* recipes, but if this one has a home… !

    • Carla

      I first tasted hummingbird cake as a letter carrier at the Post Office. I have really neat handwriting which degraded at the post office much as a doctor’s might be because we were always rushing. We periodically brought food for the holidays and a colleague named Barbara brought this one. I have a vague memory that one of Barbara’s sons lived in Hawaii, which I will fact-check. I made mine in a fluted bundt pan my mother had given me. And I also made it in very small gift loaf pans and renamed it “Friendship Cake” because it was a mixture of diversly textured ingredients and yet they came together harmoniously in this cake. And also because of the Pineapple. I left my some of my bananas in small chunks. This Hummingbird Cake recipe was a favorite of Meryl’s. We made it a lot. Hence the crusty food patina on the recipe card. I have three daughters, one my oldest, Madara, is a free-lance food-writer with Alaska at the News Minor (for a time) and at “Tart Piggy” which spawned a friend’s writing also “A Sense of Taste.”) It was Madara who had the “This Old Recipe” site with the scanned recipes and really wonderful, funny, and honest family stories accompanying them (though the domain name languished.) That’s how Meryl found his recipe when she searched her Old Recipe site. The recipes are now houses here. You may enjoy some of them. https://www.dropbox.com/sh/kjr4p96b3x3olha/AADCpRJzLarbA7t_oPqKudlHa This Hummingbird Cake Recipe was not among those on the site. I believe was probably placed in a box for Meryl and put in storage when I went to seminary in California. That storage unit and its contents were sold in Georgia.
      We’re delighted you’ve memorialized it here. It has once again become part of our making-memories.
      If you like, you may send it. Perhaps I’ll frame it up with a copy of the blog behind it. 🙂 Thank you. CAF

  3. A favorite recipe. Thanks for adding the frosting recipe too!

  4. Thank you for posting! One of the recipes was published in the Corsicana News and submitted by my grandmother, Lena Kerley, three years before her death in 1978. I actually had no recipes from this wonderful cook, so I am so grateful to my internet search today.

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