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What Is Pig Pickin' Cake and Where Did it Come From?

The citrus-flavored dessert is a favorite in the South

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Pig Pickin' Cake: The name of this dessert alone confuses most people who weren't born in the South. Is there pork inside of it? Is it savory? Is it meant for pigs? No, no, and no. However, how the cake got its name is just as interesting as the cake itself. This simple, traditional dessert was born in the South, but different variations have found their way into homes all over the country. Here's everything you need to know about Pig Pickin' Cake.

What is Pig Pickin' Cake?

Pig Pickin' Cake is a traditional Southern dessert that is often eaten at barbecues, picnics, or other communal gatherings. A vanilla cake batter is usually tossed with segments of mandarin oranges which help keep the cake moist and add a sweet citrus flavor. Once baked, the cake is traditionally topped with a whipped frosting that includes chunks of pineapple and its juice.

What ingredients go into it?

Most of the recipes for Pig Pickin' Cake include box yellow cake mix, canned mandarin oranges, eggs, and butter or vegetable oil. Canned crushed pineapple, whipped topping, and instant vanilla pudding make up the sweet frosting. Some people also add an additional sweetener or vanilla extract to the batter for more pronounced flavors. Of course, more extensive, from scratch recipes exist as well.

How did it get its name?

While the cake has no actual pig inside of it, the name suggests otherwise. It appears that the cake's nickname came from being commonly served during barbecues where an entire pig was being roasted. In The Absolute Best Dump Cake Cookbook: More Than 60 Tasty Dump Cakes, the origin of the name is explained:

The Southern specialty got its name because it was very common at pig roasts and barbecues. Guests "picked" the tender meat off the cooked pig, which is how a Southern barbecue became known as a "pig pickin'."

Macaroni and potato salad, baked beans, and coleslaw were usually served alongside the roasted pork at pig pickin's. This mandarin orange cake became a regular on the dessert table of most Southern pig roasts too. It wasn't long before the nickname stuck.

Where was it created?

There is no doubt that the origin of this citrus-infused dessert is the American South. However, many pinpoint North Carolina as the first state to serve the cake. This makes sense seeing as how whole hog barbecues often define the Southern region of the state. Recipes for Pig Pickin' Cake can be found in many books dedicated to the cuisine of the state, including Dallas, North Carolina: A Brief History and Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.

The dessert is so popular in North Carolina that it was "the most distinct" dish Googled by North Carolina residents looking for a recipe. When the New York Times tried to associate each state with a signature Thanksgiving dish, it picked sweet potato cornbread as the go-to Thanksgiving dish for North Carolina. Immediately, many in the state disagreed with the findings. The New York Times then turned to Google in search of better food representations for each state. Google researchers concluded that the most distinct dish Googled in North Carolina during Thanksgiving was, in fact, Pig Pickin' Cake.

But why did this cake end up at pig pickin's? Prior to the advent of commercial refrigeration, dairy was expensive. Canned evaporated and condensed milk was a common ingredient prior to 1950. The only fruit available year round was canned. The cake was likely a homespun creation that combined canned products into a sweet, but easy to like dessert.

Does it go by any other names?

It is also commonly known as mandarin orange cake. In the southeast and, more specifically, in the Carolinas, it has always been known as Pig' Pickin' Cake. While those are the two most common names for the dessert, it has also been called pea pickin' cake, pig eatin' cake, pig cake, sunshine cake, orange pineapple layer cake, summer cake, and celestial snow cake.


Smokers BBQ Pit/Facebook

What are some other variations of Pig Pickin' Cake?

Some versions add walnuts or pecans to the batter or sprinkle them on top of the frosting as a nutty garnish, while others add powdered sugar to the frosting for extra sweetness. Some recipes call for a splash of vanilla extract in the batter for an added layer of flavor. Another ingredient that seems to find its way into different variations of the cake is coconut. Some add coconut milk or flavoring directly into the batter, while other recipes douse the top of the cake with shredded coconut — raw or toasted — for texture.

Where can I get a slice today?

While most of these spots don't have the cake on their regular menu, they make it throughout the year and are also willing to bake one on request.

Smoker's BBQ Pit — 9711 Stephen Decatur Hwy., Ocean City, MD, 410-213-0040

Smiley's Lexington BBQ — 917 Winston Rd., Lexington, NC, 336-248-4528

Cakes by Request — 101 C St., Marysville, CA, 530-742-9020

Inspirational Grounds — 1208 N. Ellis Ave., Dunn, NC, 910-230-0126

The Filling Station of Kenansville — 312 N. NC 11 903 Hwy., Kenansville, NC, 910-296-1100