A cake with a history nobody bothered to look up.
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:
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:
3 cups flour
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.
Here’s one from the April 30, 1972 edition of the Middletown (New York) Times Herald Record:
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.
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:
3 cups all purpose flour
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.
2 (8-oz.) pkgs. cream cheese
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.
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?
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.
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.