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Hummingbird Cake

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Hummingbird Cake
Dreamcake's Hummingbird Cupcake Photo by Ben Moon

[huhm-ing-burd keyk ] noun
A popular Southern cake distinguished
by the prevalence of bananas, pineapple, and nuts.

Given the rich abundance of banana, pineapple, and pecans, all coated in velvety cream cheese frosting, the storied hovering this Southern dessert inspires is understandable. The first known publication of hummingbird cake is well documented—it appeared in a 1978 issue of Southern Living when an award-winning recipe, submitted by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, North Carolina, forever sweetened the Southern dessert landscape. The precise origin of the cake and its seemingly peculiar moniker are far less distinguishable, though there are theories connecting this exquisite dessert with the tiny fluttering creature.

For one, hummingbirds flock to flowers that bear the sweetest nectar; the moist and rich hummingbird cake attracts human dessert lovers in much the same way. It doubtlessly makes its partakers hum with delight. The hummingbird has the ability to go into a hibernation state called torpor, and maybe this is what happens to eager-over eaters of this sweet treat. More seriously, some speculate that the cake has Jamaican origins, given that pineapple and banana are native to Jamaica’s tropical climate and the country’s national bird is the “Doctor Bird,” a species of hummingbird. Difficult as it is to consider the historical context, Jamaica was a major exporter of slavery to the American South, and it is possible that the inspiration for this cake also made the journey.

Whatever its true history, today hummingbird cake is a perfect manifestation of Southern tradition and hospitality (as anyone who has visited Charleston, South Carolina, can attest: the abundant pineapples featured everywhere from door knockers to fountains signify “welcome”). Because the cake is so rich, it is ideal for large groups of people; one small slice is enough to satisfy—or try it in cupcake form. However you enjoy this Southern staple, you’ll soon understand how hummingbird cake earned the nickname “cake that don’t last.” It’s sure true that every sweet-loving bird we know simply can’t get enough of it.

Hummingbird Cupcakes
from Jan Moon of Dreamcakes bakery in Homewood, AL

Hummingbird Cake
from Chef Art Smith of Southern Art in Atlanta, GA

Published April 2014