by Paula Disbrowe
Before you learn the backstory, you should know the name is charming, but entirely misleading. That’s because the much-loved (and downright hefty) Hummingbird Cake is hardly a delicate affair. In its most famous incarnation, it is a dense, cinnamon-scented layer cake packed with tropical fruit (typically crushed pineapple and ripe bananas), lavished with cream cheese frosting and topped with pecans. Other variations might include shredded carrots, dried fruit, or coconut. Dense, moist, and packed with flavor from the riot of ingredients, there’s nothing diminutive about it.
Most credit Southern Living magazine with the cake’s widespread fame, when their original recipe came from a reader—Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina—and was first published in 1978. Since then it’s become the most requested recipe in the magazine’s history, and inspired variations ranging from Hummingbird Pancakes to Hummingbird Bundt Cake.
Like other cultural remnants of the ’70s (e.g. platform shoes, “Dancing Queen,” and Charlie’s Angels), the Hummingbird Cake has refused to make a quiet exit. On the contrary, the dessert has remained a fixture on Formica counters and cake pedestals throughout the South (alongside coconut cake and red velvet cake), and continues to be reimagined by leading chefs.
But the plot, like the cake’s quick bread-like batter, is thick. When author Anne Byrn was researching her latest book, American Cake (Rodale, 2016), she traced the recipe’s origin even further south to Jamaica and a 1960s press release from Air Jamaica, which used a hummingbird logo on the exterior of its jets. That recipe, an unfrosted Bundt, was eventually picked up by Helen Moore, then-food editor of The Charlotte Observer. Jamaica explains both the tropical ingredients and the name. In the Caribbean, it’s also known as “Doctor Bird” cake, a nickname for the red-billed streamertail, an indigenous member of the hummingbird family and the island’s national bird.