The story of the hummingbird cake begins on the island of Jamaica, on the northern shore in an estate called “Goldeneye” on a cliff overlooking Oracabessa Bay where in 1960 former British naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming began a story (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 dashing, daredevil 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”. He further explained, “When I wrote the first one in 1953, I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened; I wanted him to be a blunt instrument … when I was casting around for a name for my protagonist I thought by God, (James Bond) is the dullest name I ever heard.” (Ian Fleming, The New Yorker, 21 April 1962).
The doctor bird or red-billed streamertail (Trochilus polytmus), also known as the scissor-tail hummingbird, is indigenous to Jamaica where it is the most abundant and widespread member of the hummingbird family (Apodiformes, “without feet”; they’re grouped with the swifts). While it might be somewhat of a stretch that the doctor bird was chosen as the national avian symbol of Jamaica owing to the notoriety of the bird in a James Bond story, it’s a certainty that after Air Jamaica was established in October 1968, the new company chose the doctor bird as its logo. Shortly thereafter the Jamaica Tourism Board distributed recipes to the foreign media showcasing various ‘local’ dishes aimed for American consumers and intended to attract American visitors to the island, as reported in the March 29, 1969 issue of the Kingston Daily Gleaner (Jamaica): “Press kits presented included a Jamaican menu modified for American kitchens and featured 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 and baked in two or three round layers or a Bundt pan. Here is the original 1978 recipe from Southern Living:
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.