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.
The walking bill has its own history. Maryland legislators approved it in 2003, only to have it vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who said putting one foot in front of the other is not unique to Maryland.
But Sen. Verna L. Jones (D-Baltimore) revived the bill a few weeks ago, saying an official designation could do wonders for the obesity problem plaguing many Marylanders and other Americans.
"Once it becomes the state exercise, we could get it into the schools, give every child a pedometer, make it competitive. The possibilities are endless," Jones said. "Why does it need to be unique to Maryland for us to claim it? All it says is: 'We are a state that cares about health.' "
Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), a physician, is an early supporter of the walking bill, which has failed to attract as much attention as the Smith Island cake proposal. "I know these kinds of bills often become a joke, but to the proponents, they're serious. And in terms of walking, Americans do need to exercise more," he said.
Morhaim said that he is less familiar with the benefits, in terms of health or otherwise, of the Smith Island cake but that he is keeping an open mind.
Jones, who is a co-sponsor of the cake and walking bills, said that if lawmakers pass the cake bill, they definitely need to pass the walking measure, if only to offset health effects of the calorie-rich confection.
So far, the walking bill has six co-sponsors, but Jones said she has heard from many senators who seem supportive of it and only a handful who have expressed reservations.
As for opposition to the cake bill, much of it seems to have melted away in recent weeks, worn down perhaps by the 450 slices of chocolate-frosted dessert that proponents trucked in to make their argument.
Elmore has gotten 92 of the House's 141 delegates to sign on as co-sponsors of the cake bill. "I don't like to count my chickens before they hatch, but if we get it through the health and government committee, I think we'll be all right," he said. A committee hearing on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday.
Even the cake bill's strongest critic, Sen. Richard F. Colburn (R-Dorchester), appears to be wavering.
"When you vote against these things, you become a villain. People say, 'How in the world could someone vote against a state cat or walking for goodness' sake?' " he said. "I have nothing against the cake. I love the cake, especially with a dip of vanilla ice cream."
Years ago, when Colburn voted (in vain, it turned out) against making the calico the official state feline, his wife criticized him in private. This time, with the Smith Island bill, his daughter has been pressuring him to change his vote to pro-cake.
"If I vote for it, my wife will say, 'Why the cake and not the cat?' If I vote against it, my daughter will be pretty mad," he said. "It's a no-win situation."