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Dessert Decision 2008

In the contest for State Dessert, Smith Island takes the cake

by Diana Beechener, Bay Weekly staff writer

In the midst of decrying taxes, circumscribing windmills and regulating recycling, Maryland state government took time out for cake. They weren’t on a break, however. The delegates and state senators of Maryland cut their forks through eight layers of chocolate-frosted yellow cake to determine whether Smith Island Cake deserves the title of State Dessert.

This frosted piece of legislation may seem like a debate more suited to after-dinner conversation. But for all who spoke at the hearings for House Bill 315 and Senate Bill 287, Smith Island Cake is serious business.

“I think it’s something for the state to be proud of because it has a uniqueness all its own,” says baker Mary Ada Marshall, who earned the title The Cake Lady by selling the Smith Island treat from her home kitchen.

A Cake for Every Taste

On favorite flavors, the unanimity of Smith Island Cake supporters breaks down:

Tom Horton: Candied Fig or Orange Cake

Mary Ada Marshall: Strawberries and Cream

Julie Widdowson: Traditional Smith Island Cake, with Peanut Butter drizzle

Delegate D. Page Elmore: Traditional Smith Island Cake

The only inhabited offshore island in Maryland’s section of Chesapeake Bay, Smith Island is a small community of water-working families. Hurt by poor yields in the oyster and crab seasons, the population — which was 364 in the 2000 census — has dwindled to an estimated 260. Marshall is one of many Smith Island women who turned her baking into a cottage industry, supplementing household income. Bakers and islanders hope that making the multi-layer cake an official symbol of Maryland will help these small industries grow and strengthen the island’s economy.

“Plus,” adds Marshall, “they’re good.”

“I’ve never met a Smith Island Cake I didn’t like,” adds director of Somerset Tourism Julie Widdowson, Marshall’s ally. “And I’ve eaten a lot.”

In spite of widespread media attention and a growing support around the state, the state legislature delayed taking the Smith Island Cake bills out of the oven. As the cake’s campaign team found, passing a bill was a tricky recipe to follow. But persistence and a grassroots publicity campaign proved a sweet success for Smith Island Cake.

Bay Weekly traces Smith Island Cake’s road to the capital, putting the symbolic candidate to the taste test. Here we bring you a full report on the confection’s history and flavor.

Recipe Reading: Know Your Candidate

Marylanders can rest assured that the official candidate for State Dessert has strong links to family values. Island historians believe the cake — eight to 10 flapjack-thin layers mortared together with frosting — is modeled on an English torte, though the exact origins of the multi-layer cake remain a mystery. The cake has long adorned the tables of Smith Island, where making the dessert is a family tradition. Francis Kitching first recorded

Let Us Eat Cake:
Maryland’s 21 State Titles — Plus 2*

* State Dessert: Smith Island Cake

* State Exercise: Walking

State Bird: Baltimore Oriole

State Boat: Skipjack

State Cat: Calico Cat

State Crustacean: Maryland Blue Crab

State Dinosaur: Astrodon johnstoni

State Dog: Chesapeake Bay Retriever

State Drink: Milk

State Fish: Rockfish

State Flower: Black Eyed Susan

State Folk Dance: Square Dancing

State Fossil Shell: Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae

State Gem: Patuxent River Stone

State Horse: Thoroughbred

State Insect: Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly

State Reptile: Diamondback Terrapin

State Song: Maryland, My Maryland

State Sport: Jousting

State Team Sport: Lacrosse

State Theater: Center Stage

State Summer Theater: Olney Theatre

State Tree: White Oak

the recipe in her Smith Island Cookbook, a popular item among tourists.

Marshall’s cake-making apprenticeship began when she was 11 years old, “standing on a stool,” she says, “watching my mom.”

“The cakes were mostly a weekend dessert for homes,” says Marshall. “They were about four to five layers, but our generation decided to add layers. It kinda became a challenge to see who could add the most layers.” To preserve structural security, and possibly prevent stomach aches, the competitions ended with 10 layers agreed upon as the official height.

“They’re real cake critics,” says Bay chronicler Tom Horton, who lived on Smith Island in 1987. “When we first moved down there, my wife was going to bring a three-layer cake [to a cake walk]. It didn’t turn out right, so she didn’t bring it. We were glad she didn’t, because they’re such critics.”

Horton describes the island’s traditional cake walks as similar to musical chairs. Each cake is displayed for the hungry walkers, who place quarters next to their favorite. As music starts, walkers amble over numbered squares, hoping that when the music stops they land on a square with a number matching their desired dessert.

“I’m not a cake person,” says Horton. “Given my druthers, I’d eat pie. But I was always intrigued by the Smith Island cakes.”

The cakes are solid, compact desserts whose condensed slices were perfect for freezing, transporting or paddling, Horton’s family found. “We’ve often taken Smith Island cakes to people, and you know it’s a good looking and good tasting cake. We take them on kayak trips, too,” Horton says.

Though officially campaigning under the traditional mantle of yellow cake with chocolate frosting, the Smith Island Cake is a cake of the people: It runs the gamut of flavors. Island bakers experimented with the recipe as it traveled through the generations; now gourmands can order a slice in flavors ranging from Mandarin Orange to Peanut Butter to Candied Fig to Carrot.

Cooking up a Campaign

Even running unopposed, Smith Island Cake found the campaign trail wasn’t always sweet.

“They tried a couple years ago,” says Jim Rapp, president of the Wicomico branch of the Eastern Shore Heritage Council. “The request was denied. They said it was frivolous. So we reworked the argument and put some number together that showed what kind of economic development the bill could start.”

This time, Smith Island Cake headed toward Annapolis backed by an all-star cake team: Mary Ada Marshall and the other Smith Island bakers; author Tom Horton; environmentalist Jenny Horton; state folklorist Elaine Eff; Maryland Department of Planning secretary Richard E. Hall; members of the Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Council; Jim Rapp; the Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experience; and the Somerset Tourism Council. For the cake team, the campaign trail was filled with hard work, long hours and lots of sugar.

“We didn’t realize how much grassroots work would go into this bill,” says Julie Widdowson, who helped dream up the campaign over a slice of the cake. “We approached our local delegate [Republican D. Page Elmore]. He said that if we got enough co-sponsor signatures, he would introduce the bill.”

Odd Titles

Not all state symbols are obvious, here are some oddities among state titles.

Eat Up

Oklahoma doesn’t stop at state dessert, taking you from soup to nuts with its State Meal: Fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbecue pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken fried steak, pecan pie, and black-eyed peas.

State Spirit

Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey is the only alcoholic beverage to win a state title, as Alabama’s State Spirit.

Color Coded

North Carolina brightens up its state titles with official Blue Berry and Red Berry Titles (the blueberry and strawberry respectively).

Formal Fridays

New Mexico ropes in formal wear with bolos as its State Ties.

State Sing Along

Louisiana goes green with a State Environmental Song, Gifts of the Earth.

It Does a State Good.

Maryland isn’t the only state that’s got milk. Eighteen states list milk as its official beverage.

Before the team could pound the Annapolis pavement, they gathered volunteers from in-home bakers to Classic Cakes Bakery in Salisbury, then hit the kitchens to bake Smith Island Cakes. Armed with over 400 pieces, the volunteers sliced through Maryland’s House of Delegates, serving each office while collecting co-sponsor signatures.

Their sweet-teeth satisfied, 92 delegates agreed to co-sponsor the bill. Smith Island Cake succeeded in crossing aisles and ideologies, gaining support from Republican conservatives such as Del. Don Dwyer as well as from such Democratic liberals as Del. Jon Cardin. With the support rising from Frederick to Baltimore, HB 315 earned a sponsorship from Elmore.

“The crab and oyster season has been going downhill,” Elmore says. Smith Islanders “are not making as much money as they did 20 years ago. They need some help.”

At the hearing in the House of Delegates, Smith Islanders and their backers spoke in support of their candidate.

“I was trying to tell the legislators that this isn’t the biggest deal you’re going to handle, but it’s not frivolous,” Horton says. “There are a lot of serious issues, and [the delegates] get letters saying what are we paying you for, to eat cake? But this could help the island.”

Not all delegates were enamored with the frosted legislation.

“I’ve been through cats and dinosaurs,” said Calvert County Republican Tony O’Donnell, the House minority leader. “I’m not going to get cake on my plate, too. There are too many more important things to do.”

Smith Island Cake has become the island’s best hope for generating revenue while preserving island culture.

“Women away from here can go out and get jobs,” Marshall says. “There’s not many jobs on the island. It helps out to make cakes. You get a cake order and can make a piece of money.”

Servings of cake to Maryland delegates garnered media attention, giving Smith Island Cake momentum. The cake team cut slices at local receptions, bakers held interviews with news outlets and folks across the state began to desire a taste of cake. The cake team found its quest for a senate bill a bit easier.

“We did the same process in the Senate,” Widdowson says. “The word had started to ripple, so it wasn’t quite as laborious. We stopped counting cake served after 1,000 slices.”

The hearing of Senate Bill 287 brought out reporters and television crews. Mary Ada Marshall brought cake. People peered into the 10-layered wonder as Marshall posed for pictures and shook hands.

Taste Test: Election Results

Maryland has 21 other designated state symbols. The most recent, lacrosse (state team sport) and the Patuxent River Stone (state gemstone), were voted in during the 2004 session. Yet on the morning of the legislative session’s last working day, neither House Bill 315 nor Senate Bill 287 appeared on the voting schedule. Smith Island Cake was 12 hours from becoming stale, day-old legislation.

Early in the Senate hearings, the bill took the cake. SB 287 passed with only one dissenting vote: a nay cast by Frederick County’s Alex Mooney, who holds that Frederick’s favored apple pie is a better confection.

House Bill 315 did not fare as well. Smith Island Cake sat on the Health and Government Committee table, untouched.

Sweet States

Smith Island Cake supporters hope Maryland will join six other American states that have selected sweet treats for their symbols:

Massachusetts: Boston Crème Pie

South Dakota: Kuchen

Florida: Key Lime Pie (state pie)

Louisiana: Beignet (state doughnut)

New Mexico: Biscochito (state cookie)

Vermont: Apple Pie (state pie)

“With everything they deal with in Health and Government Operations, this wasn’t at the top of the list,” explained HB 315 co-sponsor Del. Mary Ann Love. “We did have 1,660 and some bills. I think that a lot were left sitting there.”

Mouthing an unlit cigar, in deference to Annapolis’ smoke free legislation, Del. Elmore remained confident that Smith Island Cake would get its just desserts.

“In the Senate you only had two [state title] bills; one was the cake bill and one was the walking bill,” explained HB 315 sponsor Elmore. “In the House, you had the cake bill, the walking bill, the bee bill, the American Indian bill, the charter bill and two or three more projects. I think the chairman [Peter Hammen], thought we had too many bills or whatnot. We’re a little slow, but it’s better than no vote at all.” For the Smith Island Cake team, this was cold comfort, as they redoubled their efforts to support their candidate, making more calls and giving more interviews.

The first helping of Senate Bill 287 was served to the House Health and Government Committee on March 26. The bill’s sponsor, Senator J. Lowell Stoltzfus, represented Smith Island Cake at the afternoon hearing.

“Frankly I was reluctant to introduce this, but I saw the light,” Stoltzfus told the committee. Responding to claims that the bill was trivial, Stoltzfus pointed to precedent. “We have a state cat and a state bird. What could it hurt to say, now we have a state cake? A delicious, delectable cake.”

The committee expressed disappointment that the candidate itself did not come to the meeting, accompanied by plenty of milk — Maryland’s state drink. Stoltzfus promised the candidate would make an appearance if its campaign proved successful.

In the House, Senate Bill 287 was poised to take the cake quickly.

It didn’t.

For 10 crucial days, the House tabled all cake talk. The momentum behind Smith Island Cake in the media was still strong, but the Health and Government Committee wouldn’t bite.

On April 7, the legislative session’s last day, the House sliced into the Smith Island legislation. House Bill 315 passed out of the house. The bill was rushed to the Senate Rules Committee, seeking a last-minute vote.

A second helping of cake was served when the House scheduled the Senate bill for a final hearing. With the timer set to midnight — the official ending time of the legislative session — the cake team sat with Smith Islanders, waiting to see if they finally cooked up a success.

Late in the afternoon, the little cake that could — did. SB 287 passed the House with 122 votes and 14 dissents. But one slice wasn’t enough for the Maryland General Assembly: HB 315 passed the Senate 45 to 1, routing apple pies a second time.

“Half of our cake team was on Smith Island when we got the word,” says Widdowson. “There was a lot of hooting going on.”

Conquering the Maryland General Assembly still leaves Smith Island Cake only half-baked. Both bills must go before the governor before Marylanders can officially slice into their state dessert. The team remains optimistic that Gov. Martin O’Malley will sign the bills. They sent him a cake April 4.

“I’m tickled to death,” says Marshall. “Jim Rapp, Jenny and Tom Horton were all here. We got the news at the same time. You’d have thought that we just won the Super Bowl.”

Icing on the Cake: The Popular Vote

In spite of a drawn-out political campaign, Smith Island Cake easily won the media vote.

“I told the islanders, look, the worst thing that can happen is you’re going to get a lot of publicity,” Horton said.

The candidate did. Smith Island Cake has taken the spotlight in countless print and television spots.

“I’ve got a lot more cakes to mail out,” says Marshall of her newfound notoriety. “I’ve shipped [cakes] to Baghdad and Okinawa and all over the U.S.”

Winning press coverage is half of Smith Island’s battle, Rapp told Bay Weekly. Each of Delmarva Low Impact Tourism Experience’s eight paddling trails for Smith Island ends in one of the island’s three cities, where paddlers grab a piece of cake as an exercise reward.

“Cake stores tell me their orders have tripled,” says Rapp, who hopes the attention draws people to the island.

“It’s been fun, but at its core it’s about economic development,” Widdowson says. “I think [Smith Island Cake] is easily identified with Maryland. I think it can be like the crab. I’m absolutely biased, but anyone who sees the cake remembers it. Anyone who tastes it remembers it.”

The tourism departments of the Lower Eastern Shore are banking on hungry visitors venturing to Smith Island in search of the memorable experience of eating Maryland’s State Cake.

Because, as Rapp says, “the best place to eat Smith Island Cake is Smith Island.”

Her phone ringing off the hook since the bills passed, Mary Ada Marshall heads back to her kitchen to fill more orders.

“Hopefully it will upgrade our tourism around here,” says Marshall. “Hopefully people will stop by for a slice.”

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