007, the Doctor Bird, and Hummingbird Cake

The story of hummingbird cake begins in Jamaica, at an estate called “Goldeneye,” where in 1960 Ian Fleming wrote a book (For Your Eyes Only) about a British Secret Service agent that began, “The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird.”

Fleming purloined the name for his secret agent, code name “007”, from that of the American ornithologist James Bond, a Caribbean bird expert and author of the definitive field guide Birds of the West Indies (1936). Fleming, a keen birdwatcher himself, had a copy of Bond’s guide and he later explained to the ornithologist’s wife that “It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon, and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born”.

It’s way too much of a stretch to think the doctor bird became synonymous with Jamaica because of a James Bond story, but it’s entirely logical that Air Jamaica adopted the bird for its logo. In 1969, the Jamaica Tourism Board distributed press kits that included Jamaican recipes modified for American kitchens featuring “the doctor bird cake made from bananas.”

Food historians generally cite Mrs. L.H. Wiggins’ recipe published in the February, 1978 issue of Southern Living magazine (p. 206) as the first widely-distributed recipe for Hummingbird Cake. The recipe features ripe bananas and canned crushed pineapple lightly accented with cinnamon. It is made with oil, and as such is akin to carrot, zucchini, and applesauce cakes that utilize chemical leavening and eggs without the creaming of butter to create an intensely moist, rich cake. It is typically paired with cream cheese frosting. Here is the original 1978 recipe:

Hummingbird Cake

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups salad oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, undrained
2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts, divided
2 cups chopped bananas
Cream cheese frosting (recipe follows)

Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl; add eggs and salad oil, stirring until dry ingredients are moistened. Do not beat. Stir in vanilla, pineapple, 1 cup chopped pecans, and bananas; spoon batter into 3 well-greased and floured 9-inch cake pans. Bake at 350 degrees F. For 25 to 30 minutes; remove from pans, and cool immediately. Spread frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake. Sprinkle with 1 cup chopped pecans.

Cream Cheese Frosting

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 (16 ounce) packages powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

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.

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