A Brief History of Hummingbird Cake

When I moved to the South twenty years ago, the first thing I did was to order a subscription to Southern Living Magazine. I had been told that it was the Bible for all proper Southern ladies, and I desperately wanted to fit in. Southern Living is a lifestyle magazine that features house and garden plans, information on Southern culture, and more importantly, real Southern recipes. Upon receiving my first copy, I knew that I must learn how to bake something called Hummingbird Cake, which I had never heard of before.

Hummingbird Cake is a banana and pineapple spice cake, which is layered with cream cheese icing, and covered with chopped pecans. I’m not sure why it’s called Hummingbird Cake, but I think it’s because it’s so sweet and moist that perhaps if you left a slice out on your veranda, hummingbirds might alight on it, taking in its sweet nectar. Some people say that it got its name because the cake is so delicious, your guests will hum with happiness when they eat it. Another story is that guests will hover over the cake like hummingbirds. No matter how it got its name, this cake has been a tradition in Southern cuisine since it was first published in Southern Living in 1978, by a woman named Mrs. L. H. Wiggin, from Greensboro, North Carolina. By 1990, the cake had become Southern Living’s most requested recipe.

Cake-baking, in general, has been a prized talent among ladies since Victorian times. If a lady knew how to bake a good cake, she could find herself a fine husband. And women in those days would never share their secret recipes, fearing that another woman might bake their special cake and use it to steal away a suitor. Thankfully today, we ladies don’t have to resort to competitive cake baking in order to get a husband, but it doesn’t hurt to learn how to bake one cake well. And if you’re an inexperienced baker, Hummingbird Cake is the cake for you.

Hummingbird Cake does not need a lot of time or talent to prepare. The moistness from the cake comes from the bananas and pineapple, and the large amount of vegetable oil. The eggs and moist ingredients are mixed in with the dry ingredients, and you can make this dessert by hand, without a mixer. The batter is poured into three cake pans and baked for about a half an hour. After the layers cool, you frost the layers with a simple cream cheese icing, sprinkle with chopped pecans, and it’s ready to serve.

Since the recipe was first introduced by Southern Living, resourceful cooks have used the basic ingredients to create other versions of this dessert, like Hummingbird Bundt Cake, Hummingbird Pancakes, and even a Mile-High White Chocolate Hummingbird Cake, that would suitable for a wedding. I would not recommend serving this cake after a heavy dinner though – it’s just too sweet and rich. I like to serve it with tea or coffee in the afternoon, and sometimes I make one to bring to a church supper or a dessert buffet. Whatever variety of Hummingbird Cake you choose to make, your guests will be hovering over it, humming with happiness.

Music credit: Once Tomorrow (Instrumental Version) by Josh Woodward is used under CC BY 3.0.


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