Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

The Beginning of the End of Hummingbird Cake

Matthew Gavin Frank
Vol. 87 Issue 3

In the pineapple is the fiber we’ve been looking for, the sweet yellow threadiness we’d never confuse for stitches, for wound. In the banana is the quickening rot, the rot being the softest, sweetest stage of the fruit.
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This is not Hawaii. There are no resorts here. We swim in no ocean but in One Mile Creek, where there are no whales, only six partially submerged washing machines giving in to rust, a rot slower than the banana, more ferric than sweet.
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One Mile Creek: deflated footballs, downturned antifreeze jugs, skim milk cartons, dolls naked and dolls clothed. The biggest dirty diaper I’ve ever seen, painted, as if deliberately, with a crucifix of shit.
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History is as cloying as sugar, is less prone than the banana to rot.
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Here, we sweeten our trash with tropical fruit, add a leavening agent, a little cinnamon, pecan. Vanilla for Tahiti. Egg for Earth. Salt. Flour. Here, we frost fantasy with cream cheese and imagine the speed required for an ultimate cleaning, a final washing away. How fast can we eat our Hummingbird Cake without getting sick? This: our skunk cabbage, our syrup of ipecac. Hummingbird Cake as a purging of the creek. How fast do we need to eat to commune with the wing beats? The very fast wing beats?
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In Mobile, in August, 93% humidity. In One Mile Creek, in August, the number of discarded tank tops quintuples. There’s a pink LIFE’S A BEACH one. There’s a red one collaring an egret.
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The relative humidity of a human exhale is almost always 100%. The relative humidity of a human exhale through a mouthful of Hummingbird Cake (allowing that p = pressure, the force with which we breathe out; w = water content of the cake [averaging pineapple at 87%, banana at 84%, the pecans at 10%, the cake base at 30%, the cream cheese frosting at 75%]; TC = temperature in Celsius; a = enthalpy, a thermodynamic potential that encompasses everything from the origination of a substance to its final resting place in the end stages of entropy) is almost always: pw/[Pa] = RH — 610.8 exp(17.269Tc / Tc+238.3°) or smoke, or mirrors, or a language I incompletely understand. The hummingbird hovers over Mobile, knowing nothing of the things named after it, everything of enthalpy and equation. It watches the egret free itself from the tank top, bite, then reject the left shoulder strap. The hummingbird watches twelve mothers fork cake into their mouths with plastic forks. Watches us light our fires. It inhales and exhales 250 times per minute, each.
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In our carbon is our incompletely burned garbage. In our cake, the pineapple beckons to the banana, and the banana to us.
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According to Aqua Lab’s Moisture Migration Department, in an article not-so-scholarly titled Fruitcake and Fruit Cereal Surprise, ‘‘Water content is nothing more than a distraction. Pay attention to that number, and the outcome feels like sleight of hand.’’
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That flock, a bunch of small things, looks like one big thing. History makes off with the nectar. In this is some kind of abracadabra, some distraction that only our water can understand.
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Paper plates, Snickers wrappers, empty two-liters of Mountain Dew, traffic cones, cyanide.
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Above my head in Montgomery, circling—scouting perhaps—as they’re equally drawn to sugar, I can’t tell if that’s a hummingbird, or a Vespa mandarinia, that giant yak-killing hornet, the bee whose mandible is so relatively strong (and orange) and bears a single black tooth perfect for burrowing—that tiny strength like the hummingbird to the human, the Earth to Cassiopeia, our small stories about our desserts and breath and garbage able to inflame only our small, same hearts, some larger story, larger heart, forever out there bobbing like another inky blob in the rank shallows next to pineapple rind, banana peels.
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Dead, in rigor mortis, Vespa mandarinia flares out its wings to their full three-inch span, and if we dare to lift its body, it is a cross that fills our palm.
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Though it had been made in countless kitchens throughout the American South, the first published recipe for Hummingbird Cake appeared only in the February 1978 issue of Southern Living magazine (the self-proclaimed ‘‘Southern Belle Bible of Gracious Hostessing’’). The recipe’s author, Mrs. L. H. Wiggins, offered no explanation for the cake’s name.
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Everything has its waste. In our graciousness is still a sort of garbage.
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Other names for Hummingbird Cake: Granny’s Best Cake, Jamaican Cake (the hummingbird, aka Doctor Bird, is the Jamaican national bird), Cake That Don’t Last, Nothing Left Cake, and the contradictory Never Ending Cake.
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In its nicknames, Hummingbird Cake is both Nothing and Forever.
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Other theories as to the reasoning behind the cake’s name: It’s sweet; hummingbirds like sweet. When you eat it, you hum with happiness. Like the hummingbird, we flock to this cake, eat it intensely and quickly, and disperse when sated.
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I wonder if, humming, to the hummingbird I sound like the yak. In Montgomery, I wonder if the bird and I are equally confused about things at these points in our lives. All around me it seems are wing beats—how the sounds of some birds evoke an illusion of peace, others an illusion of menace. How the sounds of all birds fool us, commune with the sounds of the insects in some romantic linguistic. How the insects are the birds who bite. How peace and menace are forever communing. How strangulation (by tank top, by cake . . . ) is the sibling to embrace. How each are equally intimate, drawn to sugar. How that notion is rote, so often discussed in the time of the noose. How the birds overhead are the gallows, mercifully empty of our bodies.
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We know: the mouth is both inside and outside of us. The mouth can commune with this kind of weather, history. Sure, the hands are important, but the mouth is closer to the heart, the heart to the thing we eat with.
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Bicycle tires, truck tires, toy truck tires, rope.
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Original Cake, Entropy Cake, Down to the Crumbs, Immortal.
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According to the World of Hummingbirds, the hummingbird’s brain is 4.2% of its body weight, the largest proportion in the bird kingdom. It can remember every flower it has ever been to, and how long each takes to refill their receptacles with nectar. The lower beak is flexible and widens and bends downward when it sips.
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When a person is hung, the lower lip drops from the upper, widens, bends downward, as if reaching for one final sweetness, flower.
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Like the hummingbird, we can remember. We try not to remember, but still we can remember. We throw our trash in a creek we know is too shallow to bury it, but still, every time we go there to swim, we’re surprised —disgusted even—to see the lids of our discarded washing machines, the eyelids of our old dolls.
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In Montgomery, as in Mobile, as in the core of the pineapple, the threads of banana, an egg white, a pressure, an origination, a last stage, a way-too-sweetness. A wet, fast breath. A hummingbird named Black-chinned, named Bu√-bellied, named Ruby-throated, named Rufous. Tchup-zee-tchuppity-tchup, they say. Behind me, the sound of glass breaking. A rickety bus, its tires, backseats. Everywhere, the tragedy of breathing. No cake in sight. Wings confusing themselves for other wings.
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Because it is so rich, Hummingbird Cake, according to Southern Living, ‘‘needs to be served in small slices.’’ In this is obvious metaphor, saccharine trash, for both of which I somehow remain gracious.
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So, we purify via pineapple, banana, eggsfloursugar, the kinds of forks we can throw away without thinking. We eat, with plastic, like the most anxious of the birds.
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Broken plates with faceless blue soldiers on them, exhaust tubes, road flares, lawnmower blades, flowerless pots, wheelless wagons, floppy disks leaking their cotton guts, aaa batteries, chicken ribs, a Welcome to Our Home Sweet Home doormat, an evergreen mood ring, speakers, an empty dog collar with rosa etched in script into the gold bone-shaped nametag.