washingtonpost.com
The State of the Cake
Smith Islanders Say Maryland Can Have Its Official Dessert, As Long as It's The Real Deal

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Although Guy will not disclose her recipe -- not even to her daughter -- she will say that she uses a packaged cake mix and doctors it a bit. As she makes the icing, a container of unsweetened cocoa powder, cans of evaporated milk and bags of confectioners' sugar sit on the counter by her Sunbeam Mixmaster.

"I base my success on the quality of my product. I don't leave layers laying around drying out, like a lot of people do," Guy says as she mixes batter for another round. She scoops three serving spoons full of batter into each of three pans (as many as her oven can accommodate at one time), then gently smooths the tops. The small amount of batter produces level layers, with no domed effect.

Into the oven they go for several minutes. "Listen for the sizzle," Guy says, meaning that when it stops, the layers are done.

Like most islanders, she credits the late Frances Kitching with promoting the cake beyond the island's shores. Kitching operated an inn in Ewell that served food and, with writer Susan Stiles Dowell, wrote "Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook" (Tidewater Publishers, 1981). The slim volume is still in print after more than 25 years.

It was Kitching, many say, who grew the cake to 10 layers. The recipe for the cake was added to a later printing of the book in 1999 and contains no explanation of why she made hers taller. Locals say that "she liked to experiment."

Other many-layered cakes are made by slicing full-size layers horizontally into halves or thirds, but each Smith Island layer is baked in an individual pan. Island bakers say their method produces a moister cake that is easy to ice because of the smooth-surfaced layers, which are "sealed" with a delicate crust on the top and bottom. The multiple batches bake quickly; no toothpick or guesswork is needed to tell when they are done.

With 10 layers of frosting, what's not to like?

Island resident Ruth Somers remembers less-voluminous tortes.

"My mom made four-layer cakes," says Somers, 88, who was watching one of her favorite television programs, "Judge Judy," when neighbor Susan Hill and a reporter dropped by to coax forth her cake memories.

Somers made a six-layer cake every Friday for her now-deceased husband of nearly 50 years. "I've never done more than that," she says, preferring to stay with the earlier, traditional way. His favorite was a yellow cake with chocolate icing, but, like other island bakers, she varied the dessert by turning out yellow cakes topped and filled with an orange glaze, fresh bananas or grated coconut in a simple syrup.

At the Smith Island Center museum, a small display devoted to the cake tells visitors that here, "a girl isn't considered a woman until she can produce a proper nine-layer cake."

Hill, a 15th-generation islander who recently opened a bed-and-breakfast called Susan's on Smith Island, was 18 when she started baking and layering.

"Some girls around here are as young as 16 when they start," says Hill, 42, who sends her guests home with a freshly baked cake, included in the $150 price of a room and dinner for two. Hill says that multi-layered banana cakes are growing in popularity. And indeed, there is baking life on the island beyond layer cakes. At suppers at the town's Methodist church, congregants also bring sheet cakes filled with figs from their gardens, and jams made from the abundant local pomegranates.

Unlike most island bakers, Hill makes her cakes from scratch and says the greatest tip she can give is to "flop the layers out quickly. You have to hurry, or they'll break up."

If you don't stay at her B&B, she says, there are other ways to take home an authentic Smith Island cake. Ask if there are extra cakes available at either of the two local restaurants that are open in the summer. Or ask the ferry captain en route to the island to call a baker and order what soon may be Maryland's official dessert.

"By the time you are ready to leave, after 2 1/2 hours on the island, when the evening boat leaves at 4 p.m.," Hill says, "a cake will be baked, boxed and waiting at the dock."

For a list of Smith Island cakemakers who sell cakes, call Somerset County Tourism, 800-521-9189.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company