Hummingbird Cake History


Hummingbird gift from a friend

Everything holds a history, particularly delicious desserts. Take pie, for example, spelled “pye” in medieval England. Remember the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”? Indeed, at one time in British culture, live birds flew from pies in surprise entertainment for children at suppertime.

            Not as wildly exciting, but wonderful nonetheless, I remember my mother standing before the kitchen counter forming perfect balls of dough with her hands. The synchronized sound of her rolling pin on the countertop often roused expectation of relatives for dinner.

There was no such thing as one pie for dessert in Mom’s kitchen.

            Although famous for her flaky piecrusts, Mom also baked spice cakes and iced them in peaks of seafoam frosting. Her chocolate and banana-nut layer cakes with smooth, buttercream frosting also developed a palate for culinary excellence.

            Mom’s cookbooks I inherited also prove these favorites merely scratch the surface of the pastries she served her family, neighbors, and relatives.

            Considering this heritage, when my friend Marilyn gifted me a darling glass hummingbird last January, I hung the yellow-winged trinket below a kitchen cabinet for cheerful company. To my delight, on rare sunny days, the hummingbird’s yellow head and green beak cast sunbeams while I cook and clean.

            One recent day, while pondering what pastry to serve Marilyn and our fellow tea friend, Anne, for our February gathering, I recalled someone raving about the Hummingbird Cake.

Yes! That’s the perfect dessert to serve, I decided, and consulted my “Better Homes and Gardens” cookbook, Mom’s “Pillsbury” cookbook, and Volume I and II of “The Gourmet Cookbook.”

Not one Hummingbird Cake recipe.

Surprisingly, my more modern Southern cookbooks do not include the recipe, either.

Reluctantly, I visited the Web and found a plethora of Hummingbird Cake recipes with common ingredients. Furthermore, I learned this supposedly world-famous cake is a Jamaican dessert introduced in the 1960s by the Jamaican Tourist Board.

This explains why Mom never baked a Hummingbird Cake, and why the recipe does not appear in cookbooks published in the 1960s.

Known in Jamaica as their “Dr. Bird Cake”, so named after their national bird, the hummingbird, they use their local pineapple, bananas, and spices to stimulate their tourist industry.  

The pliable recipe settled into the U.S. South, the likes of “Southern Living” magazine and Paula Deen creating their version once they got hold of the Jamaican recipe. This explains the recent, rapid growth of the cake in contemporary accounts of American cooking, and then the world’s.

Consuming generous amounts of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, the dense, moist cake smothered in cream cheese frosting and heavily garnished with toasted pecans, we cleaned our plates.   

            Dear Reader, although there is no such thing as one kind of cake or pie on my table, I’m certain the Hummingbird Cake is destined to return.

            Oh, and the sherry glass filled to the brim with dark chocolate ganache, with the pot of steamy Earl Gray tea, completed our culinary experience entirely. And the ladies took plenty cake home.

Hummingbird Cake (350 degrees)

3 cups flour

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon each nutmeg and ginger

½ teaspoon salt

3 eggs

2 cups mashed very ripe bananas

8 oz. cup crushed pineapple

¾ cup vegetable, or olive, or coconut oil

1 ½ teaspoon vanilla

2 cups toasted pecans


8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature

3 tablespoons butter

2 cups powdered sugar

1 ½ teaspoon vanilla

1-2 tablespoons milk

·         Toast 2 cups pecans in oven. Grease and flour 2 round baking pans or bundt pan: place 1 cup pecans in bottom of pan(s)

·         Blend flour with dry ingredients; add wet ingredients, pour into pan(s)

·         Bake for one hour or until cake is dry with toothpick test; cool cake for two hours

·         Meanwhile, whip cream cheese with remaining ingredients for frosting. Pour over cake and sprinkle with remaining coarsely chopped pecans


My somewhat agrarian life

My granny along the banks of Peter Creek, Kentucky

 Crows call my focus to the treetops—a sign my saunter interrupted their feast of prey. Within a few steps, I find a dead rabbit in my path.

I occasionally encounter this sad sight on my walks, the automobile’s intrusion of the natural world’s cycle of capture, kill, consume. My consolation is the animal was spared a slow, torturous death by carnivorous birds.

And the yapping crows aren’t happy to be deprived their pickings and demand their free meal.

The rabbit’s lifeless, dark eyes look up to me as I take it by a foot and throw it into the hedgerow. I don’t want other vehicles running it over.

Do the crows thank me for serving their breakfast? Well, I don’t know crow-talk, however, those brass, black birds sound like they’re mocking me. But I don’t hold it against them. This is a broken world, and I’m broken, too.

That’s why I walk alone. To converse with my merciful Lord.

 I resume my walk under the fair, blue sky and remember the first spring in our new country home. Our three teenagers gathered by the bedroom window facing west. A hideous, inhuman scream came from the tree line along the road. Never had we heard anything so dreadful.

Later, a neighbor informed me the sound was that of a rabbit in the claws and jaws of a predator. I hoped and prayed my family and I would never hear that scream again. Thank God, we haven’t to this day.

As I turned and walked uphill, our first year in Addison Township flashed before me. Calling upon the fortitude of my Scots Irish German ancestors, I began building our slightly self-sufficient and sustainable homestead.

Homegrown food in the refrigerator, freezer, and canned in the pantry, for instance, like my granny did with her garden and hens. She gathered eggs and butchered meat birds for her delicious fried chicken.

I began our little farm with flowers and tomatoes, and soon learned rabbits are the gardener’s number one foil. For they nibbled my chicken wire guards, yielding a half-empty freezer and pantry to depress the woman who planted enough seeds and seedlings to feed her family and neighbors.

That’s why Granny built a strong fence around her garden, tall enough to discourage local men who drank too much at Beulah’s place from pulling up her tomatoes and corn again.

A dairy farmer, Great granny Hunt birthed ten children, one of whom she named Ollie, my granny. Great granny hitched her team of mules to her milk wagon and loaded it with crates of eggs, milk, and butter. She sold her farm products along Peter Creek, Granny’s small mercantile included.

Fourth generation McCoy-Hunt from Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains, my somewhat agrarian life is a mere remnant of my matriarchs’.

Dear Reader, I’m satisfied with growing garlic, asparagus, raspberries, rhubarb, lavender, peaches, pears, and apples. And gathering half a dozen eggs.

Yet, come spring, I’ll plant again tomatoes, greasy beans, and collard greens in hopes to fill my freezer and pantry.


Good medicine


Robin in flight

After our “Friends of Herbs” program Wednesday morning at Seven Ponds Nature Center, I drove south twenty-one miles to my favorite grocery store. I’ve learned the aisles in Fresh Thyme, where to find ginger root (more accurately a rhizome) in their produce section.

Jeanette Farley, a co-chair of our group, had demonstrated making ginger juice, a tasty health boost she adds to beverages. “It’s a warming herb that improves heart health,” she said, and named other benefits.

A believer in ginger’s medicinal properties, I’ve steeped fresh ginger and lemon slices together in hot tisanes (herbal tea) for years. And when my palate desires a delicious Scottish scone, I’ll add chopped crystalized ginger, lemon zest, and dried lavender buds for complimentary flavors.

In the long, sunny drive to my destination, I wondered why chicken-ginger-garlic and vegetable-ginger-garlic stir-fry retired from my main dishes without proper notice.

Thus, I said to self, “Add fresh ginger to your grocery list.” As Jeanette helped me plant my first garlic patch years ago with cloves from her soft and hard neck varieties, I grow my own garlic—and walked by Fresh Thyme’s garlic display with a smile.

Two hours later in my kitchen, I emptied my grocery bags to discover I’d forgotten to write fresh ginger on my list. Hmm…some sources report ginger extract “helps improve cognitive performance and memory.”

All the more reason to consume ginger juice. It’s not just for your heart and joints. Add it to your daily water intake.

Needing to stretch my legs and raise my pulse, I laced up my hiking boots at 4 PM and opened the basement door to the robin’s song.

No. Hundreds of robins perched in our evergreens engaged in a boisterous conference. One sweet bird after another chirped their little heart out as if giving a lecture on how to praise the Creator for the lovely, sunny day.

Should I fetch my binoculars to find and observe their spokespersons? No again. I stood compelled by their music and the nourishing moment with my eyes lifted to receive the sun’s Vitamin D and C.

Did those darling red-breasted choristers, those hardy Michigan hangers-on, confuse this February thaw with spring?

Regardless, I seized their joy and turned the corner of the house.

Lo and behold! The robins flew from the trees and followed me to the front yard. What a sight to see! Droves of red bellies and black wings sweeping, dipping, soaring above me. Many found branches in the front yard, some dining on crabapple tree berries.

Chirping. Chirping. Chirping. Thanking me for planting trees for them to build their nests and hide from predators.

“My pleasure entirely,” I said.

Dear Reader, robins sang in the hedgerows along the road as I walked by. They greeted me in the old oak beside our driveway. They feasted on crabapple berries from the tree planted in memory of our deceased daughter.

Blessed life, singing a perennial love song our Earth offers to warm our souls. Good medicine, indeed. 

Step by step


My cousin Kevin sits on Granny's steps, August 1964

Nothing thrilled me more than the adventure of sleeping in the back window of Dad’s 1949 Chrysler on our trip to Granny’s house. All it took was her phone call to Mom in July or August when Granny said, “Sadie, the garden’s in. Come on down.”

            The following Saturday after Dad closed his barbershop, he loaded Mom’s canning jars in the trunk with our suitcases. Two sisters sat in the back seat. I crawled into the cubbyhole beneath the backseat window. Mom sat up front with our baby on her lap, the diaper bag and Dad’s Thermos of hot coffee at her feet.

My father knew every county and gravel road between Detroit and Peter Creek, Kentucky. Each trip he aimed “to shave off a few mile” and arrive earlier at Granny’s house than the summer before.

            From my backseat window, I observed Detroit’s tall buildings disappear and Ohio’s cornfields surround us in an ocean of cornstalks. Far as my eyes could see. I fell asleep with the taste of Granny’s buttery roastin’ ears in my mouth.

            Before dawn, Mom gently shook my sisters and me. “We’re at your granny’s house. Wake up.”

I smelled the ancient, green mountains and saw the steep, concrete steps leading to her front porch. There, Granny’s swing hung from the ceiling by chains. On rainy days, my sisters and I would sing and swing for hours.

Sometimes, Granny’s neighbors came to visit Mom to see how her girls had grown. Most of the women I didn’t know, except Juanita Charles because we played with her children in Granny’s alleys.

“Now, those dirty boys are not allowed on my porch, y’all hear?” Granny reminded us.

Her next-door neighbor who lived in a large, lovely house came to sit on the steps and talk with us after dinner. Younger and smaller than Granny, she’d take one step up at a time, sit for a while, and scoot up closer. All the time smiling and asking us questions.

This puzzled me to the point that I later asked Granny, “Why does your neighbor lady talk with us from your steps?”

My grandmother sighed. “Oh, Bernice was borned with a hole in her heart, honey. She cain’t climb steps too fast.”

I felt sorry for Bernice and asked Granny, “How could a hole grow in her heart?”

“I don’t know, Ars. But Bernice does just fine takin’ step by step.”

On this bright, frigid February day when a migraine headache this morning sabotaged my walk in Michigan’s winter wonderland, I remember Bernice, write a few sentences. Swivel my chair to the window. Ponder deer tracks in the snow. Rest my eyes on the beautiful and steadfast.

Dear Reader, Granny’s house, built in 1948, the year before my birth, no longer stands. There’s no trace of the concrete steps my sisters and I ran up and down while Mom and Granny preserved her vegetable garden.

Yet, God is merciful. Granny left a photo of those beloved eleven steps where I learned to walk this life step by step.