The State of the Cake
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
EWELL, Md. -- As she stacks and frosts her 10-layer yellow cake with chocolate icing, Beverly Guy will not share the recipe, for one simple reason: all those commercial bakers on the mainland. They've been selling what she calls "Smith Island-like" cake, and that just doesn't sit well with her.
"You may think I'm petty and hateful," Guy says, "but they are pushing it to the hilt," crumbling Oreo cookies and candy bars in between the layers. Smith Island cake is much simpler than all that, and it "has to come over on the ferry to be real," she says.
For Guy and the other proud residents of this windswept, marshy dot in the central Chesapeake Bay, a badly needed economic boost could come in the form of a bill awaiting the signature of Gov. Martin O'Malley. Massachusetts has its Boston cream pie, South Dakota has its kuchen, and if O'Malley signs, Maryland's official dessert will be the Smith Island cake.
With only 260 full-time residents, many of whom trace their ancestry to English settlers in the late 1600s, Smith Island is a quiet, provincial community. In the tiny town of Ewell, the informal capital of the island, stray cats and mallard ducks appear to outnumber residents on the narrow lanes where most houses scream for a good coat of paint. The necessities of a simple life are shipped in on small passenger ferries that make the 35-minute trip to the mainland twice a day.
For hundreds of years, the men and women of Smith Island have supported their families as they do today, relying on the bay for its oysters, fish and blue crabs. Stacks of wire crab traps, or "pots," and shacks on pilings, where hard crabs are monitored as they molt into the coveted soft-shell stage, line the shoreline.
No one is sure when the women of Smith started baking cakes composed of pancake-thin layers, sparingly covering the tiers with, most commonly, chocolate icing. Some say the cakes originally had as few as four layers; today the usual number is from eight to 10. Over the years, the cakes have grown higher and higher, even as the bounty of seafood in the bay declined from decades of increased pollution and overfishing.
The Maryland blue crab harvest last year dropped by 6 million pounds to 21.8 million, the second-lowest harvest on record. Prospects for this season, which runs from April 1 to Dec. 15, are not encouraging. In a joint announcement last week, Maryland's O'Malley and Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said state regulators have been told to reduce the harvest of female blue crabs by 34 percent to help stave off the crab population's complete collapse.
The designation of official dessert won't bring back the crabs. But islanders such as Guy hope it will increase tourism and, of course, sales of Smith Island cakes. Publicity about the bill already has had an effect on the latter.
On a recent afternoon, in the orderly but timeworn kitchen of her clapboard cottage, Guy spreads the last of the chocolate icing onto a 10-layer yellow cake and gives her rotating cake stand a final twirl. Out comes a ruler to check the cake's height. In her estimation, it's perfect: exactly three inches tall.
"This is what all the hype is about," says Guy, 59, a widow whose family has called the island home for five generations. "This is your traditional Smith Island cake."
Working alone, she will make a total of eight cakes this day, one by one, with her trusted collection of 10 mismatched nine-inch round pans. From start to finish, it takes her 45 minutes to complete each cake.
"This is what I do morning, noon and night," says Guy, who sells her cakes for $21 each to island visitors and by mail order. (Contact her through Somerset County Tourism, 800-521-9189.) "I make them till I drop off at night." Business is up. With the recent media attention, she's selling an average of 33 cakes a week, three times as many as last year.