Smith Island is shrinking. Once populated by over 800 people, the dry, Methodist community twelve miles off the coast of Maryland now has fewer than 200 residents. The remaining men work mostly in a dwindling seafood industry, even as the coastline erodes and water levels rise. But the women from this remote, rugged place make something glamorous and stately: Smith Island Cake.
Grandmothers on the sleepy island assemble this elegant dessert using 8-12 layers of yellow dough. They sandwich cooked chocolate icing in between each fluffy layer, then use more of the same fudgy frosting to cover the cake. The exterior is unassuming and uniform, never decorated with nonpareils or sprinkles. Cutting a slice, however, reveals the delicate, alternating stripes of creamy chocolate and eggy cake.
Mary Ada Marshall is known as the Smith Island Cake lady. She bakes up to 10 of the many-layered delights per day, and her business operates entirely by word of mouth. Like most women who prepare the eponymous cake, the tradition runs in her family. Modern mainland pastry chefs create all sorts of variations on the classic cake, some of which more closely resemble a New Orleans doberge cake. Food authorities even suspect the two confections had the same Hungarian ancestor, despite Smith Island’s relative isolation.
In October of 2008, Maryland made Smith Island Cake its official dessert, joining Massachusetts and South Dakota as one of three states with a formally associated treat. The fudgy yellow cake also happens to pair perfectly with the state’s official drink: milk. If you’d like to try the duo in its place of origin, make haste. Even though the match made in Maryland is timeless, the culture of its off-shore homeland may not have a whole lot of time left.
Need to Know
Bakeries around Maryland and Delaware are most likely to make Smith Island Cakes, and some restaurants offer them by the slice. If you live outside the region, you can always order a whole one from Mary Ada Marshall herself.
Where to Try It
Mary Ada Marshall'sPO Box 665, Tylerton, Smith Island, Maryland, 21866, United States
Marshall mails cakes anywhere or ships by boat for pickup at Crisfield City Dock. She also offers traditional island layer cake baking demonstrations in her home. Call 410-425-2023 to arrange in advance.
Farmers Fishers Bakers3000 K St NW, Washington, DC, 20007, United States
This restaurant serves a "floating" Smith Island Cake, served in hot chocolate.