Photographer: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox
If you've ever visited Maryland, odds are high you've stuck a fork into a slice of what's now known as Smith Island Cake. The officially designated state dessert consists of at least seven layers of yellow or white cake with cooked fudge icing spread in between, making for one rich, chocolatey slice that only serious sweet tooths may be able to finish.
This famed dessert is far more than your basic layer cake, however. Smith Island Cake dates to the early 1900s and has a bit of a romantic history.
What Is Smith Island Cake?
The residents of Smith Island—only around 200 remain today—have long made their living in the fishing industry. When the men would head out on Chesapeake Bay, often for a week at a time, their wives sent them on their way with sustenance in the form of this cake, says Elaine Eff, retired Maryland state folklorist who helped to develop a museum for the island.
The reason for the cake was three-fold: The men loved sugar, they needed it for the energy boost, and all the layers of chocolate icing helped to keep the cake moist. Not to mention, a large hunk of cake was so sweet, it would theoretically last longer than a regular piece of cake. Talk about a saccharine sendoff, right?
Smith Island Cake's numerous thin layers weren't so much a work of art as a necessity, though, explains Eff.
To understand its beginnings, consider the time: Smith Island didn't get electricity until the 1950s—several decades after most of the rest of the country—so home cooks had to make do with wood stoves. To whip up desserts, they'd "bake" with a metal box set atop their stove. As you can imagine, getting a thicker cake layer to rise and bake through was nearly impossible. Instead, they got creative, pouring a small amount of batter in multiple pans and repeating the process several times.
Photographer: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox
Without electricity, you're also without a refrigerator. That's why the original Smith Island Cake chocolate icing was made up of sugar and chocolate. No butter meant it didn't require refrigeration, either at home or out on the water with the fishermen.
Two recipes are widely regarded as the originals for "from the stump" (i.e., made from scratch) Smith Island Cake. The first, from Frances Kitching's 1994 book "Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook," calls for a whopping four cups of sugar between the cake and icing, and 10 nine-inch pans.
The second, from Mary Ada Marshall—a Smith Island resident who's been making the cake for decades—offers a bit of a shortcut, starting with a box of Duncan Hines yellow cake mix.
Get the Recipe: Mary Ada's Smith Island Cake
Where to Buy Smith Island Cakes
Today, a little, but not too much, has changed. A range of recipes for Smith Island Cake call for buttercream frosting, and bakeries throughout Maryland now bake and ship tens of thousands of cakes around the country. (You can even buy one through Goldbelly).
Smith Island Baking Company of Crisfield reports selling around 30,000 Smith Island Cakes per year, equating to about 250 a day. Classic Cakes, in Salisbury, Md., is owned by two native Smith Island women who've been baking cakes for nearly 20 years and now produce more than 20 flavors of Smith Island Cake.
Family-owned Smith Island Bakery is the only remaining commercial bakery on the island itself, housed in the building where the very first cake bakery was located.
"We felt it was important to bring the cake making back to Smith Island, where it originated," says co-owner Kathey Jones. She adds that the restaurants on Smith Island bake their own cakes in house, and some of the island women still make cakes and sell them out of their homes, known as cottage bakers.
While Smith Island Bakery's process is proprietary, "I don't think there is any big secret to the recipe," says Jones. "It's all [about] how Grandma taught you to make them."
Then and now, "the cake," as locals say, is much more than cake. Smith Island is geographically isolated as Maryland's only inhabited island available exclusively by water, and most families still make a living on the water. Men typically go to work pre-dawn, and their wives pick the crabs they catch and help in the shanties fishing soft crabs in season, says Wendy Robertson, tourism manager at Somerset County Recreation, Parks & Tourism, just across the Tangier Sound from Smith Island. However, their way of life is quickly disappearing, and Smith Island Cake represents a supplemental income for cottage bakers and a way to make ends meet, Robertson adds.
That's a big reason that, nearly 15 years ago, several state organizations rallied to advocate for a bill that would designate Smith Island Cake as the state's official state dessert. Speaking to legislators through their stomachs, they delivered carefully plated slices of cake to each member of the General Assembly in Annapolis. The bill passed, and the cake earned its rightful title as State Dessert of Maryland in 2008.
"Since the designation, the cake has served as an ambassador of sorts, heightening awareness of the island and providing an economic boost not only to tradition bearers but to the region as well," says Robertson.
If that's not a sweet reason to order a Smith Island cake and indulge in a slice, or try your hand at whipping up your own, we don't know what is. As Eff attests, Smith Island Cake is an important part of the islanders' culture.
"[On a trip years ago], I went from house to house and visited with crabbers and oyster men and sea captains and housewives and store owners, and every single house I went to… invited me in for a piece of cake,'" says Eff. "Finally I said, 'This is not cake, this is very special.'"