Becoming the Official State [Blank] Is No Cakewalk

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2008

With budget cuts looming, the slots debate in the background as always and myriad other legislative concerns, Maryland lawmakers find themselves faced with yet another controversial dilemma: Should they adopt an official state dessert?

Eastern Shore lawmakers are lobbying hard to confer the official designation upon Smith Island cake, a many-layered buttery confection slathered with frosting. To make their point, the cake backers organized an effort to win hearts and minds by bribing every legislator and legislative aide in Annapolis with a sample slice.

But some of them encountered pockets of resistance among lawmakers who worry that adding yet another item to an already swollen list of state symbols would dilute the meaning and iconic stature of such state treasures as the oriole and the blue crab.

And as if the cake drama weren't enough, another group of legislators recently announced plans to make walking the official state exercise.

"First the cake, now walking," said Del. Richard A. Sossi (R-Queen Anne's). "I mean, with the cake, at least it really is something unique to Maryland, but making walking the state exercise is like making breathing the state activity. People do it everywhere. It's not like we invented [it]."

Proponents of the walking and cake bills say the official state designations could bring a world of good with no trade-offs, a rarity indeed in a budget-strapped year.

For decades, the vitality of Smith Island has been dwindling. The population of the island, a clump of land in the Chesapeake Bay accessible only by boat, has shrunk from as many as 800 to about 250 year-round residents. Its economy, which once thrived on the oysters and crabs and other water industries, is slowly dying out. The health of the Chesapeake is poor.

But the island's traditions and pride remain, along with a hope that those could revive its economy.

"This bill is about economic development," said Del. D. Page Elmore (R-Wicomico), who spearheaded the cake effort. "There are ladies and bakeries all along that area who still make the cake. It's what we're known for."

The origins of the cake have been lost to the past: Even sixth-generation cooks on the island can't remember a time when the cake wasn't around.

"It's something you just learn from your mother and your mother's mother," said Mary Ada Marshall, 60, a baker and lifelong Smith Island resident.

The recipe varies from chef to chef, but the key ingredients are basic: butter, eggs, flour, sugar and lots of frosting. The dessert's distinguishing feature is a series of very thin layers of cake wedged between frosting. The number of layers varies from eight to 12, and at least a dozen flavors are used for the frosting.

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