It turned out to be our most popular recipe ever. Which is kinda crazy, but it did. Last week on Biscuits and Jam. It was just one little recipe in a story called Making the Best Bananas, with a bunch of other banana recipes. And that’s the one that people freaked out over. So we’re talkin’ about Mrs. L.H. Wiggins and the Hummingbird Cake. She’s like an icon around here but we didn’t know anything about her. We had actually looked into it a number of times. I mean we tried to track her down. We had put out calls on Facebook looking for Miss. Wiggins. We had looked into our recipe files here, tried to find if she had ever submitted other recipes. And we just came up with nothing. So, it really was kinda mysterious. This is Biscuits and Jam, a podcast from Southern Living. We’re finding the story behind Southern Living’s most popular and mysterious recipe of all time, the iconic Hummingbird Cake. I’m Meg Pace. And I’m Nellah McGough. Alright, so here we go, episode two. How you feelin’? Good.
Okay. So first if you’re listening to this, go back and listen to episode one so you’re up to speed on our journey. Nellah and I are trying to find out who exactly is the woman who submitted a recipe to Southern Living in 1978. It went on to become this magazine’s most requested and popular recipe in its history. What are we talkin’ about Nellah? The Hummingbird Cake. Oh yes. All we know about her at this point is the name she submitted the recipe under, Mrs. L.H. Wiggins. L.H. most likely being her husband’ initials, right? Right, and I figured that’s what it was because my grandfather’s initials are L. H. And I thought, that’s got to be her husband’s initials. ‘Cause it was common for women to write their name using their husband’s initials. That’s exactly right. Okay, so let’s go back to when our editor-in-chief, Sid Evans, made the decision to republish the original 1978 Hummingbird Cake recipe. Here’s Sid. Well, it was the 40th anniversary of the Hummingbird Cake, right? So, it was first published in February of 1978, we wanted to come back in February of 2018 and do something special, so we ran… We ran a Hummingbird Cake on the cover. So I’m gonna interject here. If you haven’t seen this cover, go check it out on our website. It is beautiful: three moist layers sandwiched between cream cheese frosting, and Southern pecans circle the top. It was photographed against a bright, bluish-green background that really makes this white cake pop off the page. Nellah, how would you describe this cover? Luscious. I love that word. Yeah, I mean totally. And, I mean, it looks moist, it looks great, it looks springy and I love the daffodils on the cover. Are those daffodils? (laughs) What are those things? I don’t know. (laughing) I think they are. I’m not a garden expert. Well I love ’em, whatever they are. Anyway, it’s really… It’s so yummy, and it looks like you could just dig in right there on that cover. Oh yes, that icing is just perfect. Okay, back to Sid. We ran a Hummingbird Cake on the cover to celebrate, and then we put a writer on it named Kathleen Purvis who lives in North Carolina. As far as we knew, Miss Wiggins was from Greensboro, North Carolina, and we asked Purvis to try and really track it down, and track down the origins of the story, find out what she could about Miss Wiggins, and she found out a few things, but she really couldn’t solve the puzzle. All Kathleen had to go on was a name: Mrs. L.H. Wiggins, and a return address from 1978 that was for a dorm at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Here’s what Kathleen found out. Mrs. Wiggins was a widow from Virginia who worked as a housemother at a dorm at UNC Greensboro, hence that return address. She died in 1995 at 81. That’s all we had to go on, right? Right. That wasn’t a lot. You know, it was a little bit, but, you know, there was still a lot of digging to do. What’s essentially initials, and a return address for a dorm, I feel like we’re looking for a needle in the haystack. This is not the first time Southern Living has tried to find their mystery recipe submitter. Recently we sat down with one of our assistant food editors, who was first given this assignment five years ago. Here’s Pat York. I think it was on the 35th anniversary when Hunter Lewis, who was the food editor at the time, said, “Find Mrs. Wiggins.” And that’s when we started this search that’s lasted for years. Pat and her team tried everything they could think of. And that’s when we first started Facebooking, Southern Living having a Facebook page. And I believe it was Donna Florio, one of our food editors, she was on Facebook. So she kinda put it out there to everybody who followed us, “If you know Mrs. Wiggins, “if you know anything about her.” And I even went through city directories, old phone books, things like that, from Greensboro UNC, where she was living, trying to find her. And of course we didn’t find anything. I mean, that sounds like some real gumshoe journalism. Right, right. But still nothing on Mrs. L.H. Wiggins or her Hummingbird Cake. Right. So, editors at Southern Living aren’t the only ones curious about her, either. The newspaper in Greensboro, maybe 2010, several years ago, put out something in their newspaper asking if anyone knew Mrs. Wiggins. So, they were looking for her, too. And nobody ever wrote in about it. About her. How long ago was that? I need to look back on that, but I– It was a few years ago.
It was a few years ago. So other people have looked for her, too. We’ve always wondered who she was. Southern Living has a long tradition of receiving and printing recipes submitted by readers. And a lot of those readers become regular submitters. Here’s assistant food editor Pat York again. Our pages are full of people, they’re full of people, and there are people who have submitted, and have had published, more than one recipe. There’s a lady named Carolyn Nobles that, I mean, she submitted tons of ’em. So Nellah, you got the idea to dig through our catalog of reader-submitted recipes to find anymore of Mrs. Wiggins’ footprints, starting with her original submission of the Hummingbird Cake. Right. But that trail went cold quick. Yeah. She did not submit anything else that we can find, that she ever, yeah, never submitted another recipe to Southern Living. And when you went to look for the Hummingbird Cake Recipe, it’s not there. It’s not there. We keep a card file of these recipes, and it was not there, that actual, that one card, of all those cards, of that year, and it wasn’t there. (laughs) It was like, she’s really makin’ us work hard to find her. (laughs) You scoured our archives, and then reached out to former Southern Living editors. So I also spoke to Jean Liles, who was in our test kitchen at the time. And she doesn’t believe she ever sent in another recipe. So I guess this is the only time she ever sent a recipe in to anyone. I wonder what prompted her to do that. I don’t know. Now what? With few new clues, and a number of dead ends, our editor-in-chief had one more idea. He used his monthly column in the February 2018 issue to make a call-out. So I put something in my letter about it, and I think that’s what triggered it, is we got some feedback from the readers, from two readers in particular, who said they knew her. Next time on Biscuits and Jam, the Joan letter. It was an e-mail. She wrote in out of the blue, and said that… That she knew Miss Wiggins, called her Wiggy, that she had taken care of her kids, that she was like family, she knew the cake, and we, you know, we felt like we had struck gold. It was very exciting. Oh Nellah, I feel like we’re cooking with grease now. Yep, yep. It just takes one little, one more piece of the puzzle, to start filling that thing in. And it started with Wiggy. And Joan. Wiggy and Joan. Biscuits and Jam is produced by myself, Meg Pace, with Nellah McGough. Executive producers Mike Grady and Sid Evans. Sound mixing by Jason Keener. You can check out our website at southernliving.com/culture/podcast. There you can find photos, videos, and the recipe for the Hummingbird Cake. Thanks to digital editor Abbi Wilt for maintaining our webpage for us. Our logo and art is by Miles Cain. Thanks to Sid, Southern Living’s editor-in-chief, and Executive Editor Krissy Tiglias for letting Nellah and me spend part of our workday eating cake, all in the name of research. Also special thanks to Pat York for her help with this episode. Be sure to subscribe to Biscuits and Jam wherever you get your podcasts, so you never miss an episode. See y’all next time. Okay Nellah, you know I have to do it. I have to give the people an extra slice of you. (laughs) Oh gosh. If I don’t wear pantyhose to church and I’m wearing a dress, my grandmother is gonna say something. (laughs) Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. I haven’t put on a pair of pantyhose in… A decade, probably. I mean, that’s why I don’t go to church with my grandmother. That’s right. So I don’t have to put those pantyhose on. Oh my gosh. Do they even still make pantyhose? Yes. I guess they do. (laughs) Yeah, ’cause we recently brought in some kids, and put pantyhose in front of them to see if they even knew what they were. And they had no idea. Except one little girl said that this is what her grandmother wears to just like keep everything in. (laughs) That’s hilarious. Wonder what that means. What’s her grandma keepin’ in those pantyhose? That’s the follow-up question. (laughs) Stuff just comes outta my mouth, and I (laughs)– I know, that’s why we love you.