Chris Muir's Day By Day

Monday, March 31, 2008

No Oysters? Let Them Eat Cake.

A Specialty of Smith Island in Chesapeake Bay.

SMITH ISLAND, Md. — With the blessing of state lawmakers in Annapolis, a sweet blend of flour, butter, eggs and chocolate may provide an economic boost to this small, struggling island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay.

Years of strict limits on crabbing and oyster harvesting have whittled down the work of watermen, the island’s main source of income, leaving an unusual multilayered cake — known as the Smith Island cake — as the new great hope. A bill to designate it Maryland’s official dessert has passed the State Senate and is awaiting final approval in the House.

“Florida has the key lime pie, Massachusetts has the Boston cream pie and, hopefully, Maryland will have the Smith Island cake,” said D. Page Elmore, a Republican who represents the rural lower Eastern Shore. “This is a source of revenue for them — and a source of pride.”

The confection’s origin is uncertain, but some say it can be traced to Welsh and English settlers who came to the island in the late 1600s. The cake originally was four layers, but the women of Smith Island started to stack it higher as a form of competition, and it eventually grew to as many as a dozen layers, said Mary Ada Marshall, a baker here.

Mrs. Marshall, 60, said she learned from her grandmother how to build her own version, an 8 to 10-layer yellow cake, divided by a thin layer of hot fudge icing that is also spread on the top and sides. Cake variations include bananas, strawberries, pineapple, peaches and cream, or figs as filling between each layer.

Hester Smith, who has lived on Smith Island for 66 years, also lamented the economic changes. She has witnessed generations move away to more stable jobs on the mainland. As for the Smith Island cake, she is mixing up her batter.

“It’s a wonderful place to live,” Mrs. Smith said. “We can go to bed or go on vacation and never have to lock our doors. We don’t have to be scared like everybody away from here. All the women just about make cakes. The women will pull together and try to save the island.”


I remember that William Least Heat Moon visited Smith Island in his wonderful travel book Blue Highways. I've been looking at Chesapeake Bay a lot via Google Earth lately, wondering if there's a deserted island that could use a hermit...

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