It’s their cake and everyone eats it, too

Smith Islanders turn cakes into dough after they become the ‘official’ Maryland dessert.

By , Correspondent

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    Let them eat cake: The Smith Island Cake Company opened on July 4 and turns out about 12 cakes a day, several of which appear above. It's owned by Theresa Siejack, who lives in Ohio, and managed by Terri Swan, who lives on the island. The long-distance arrangement has caused some consternation among locals.
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Smith Island, Md.

Beverly Guy is baking a layer cake in her kitchen stove, as she has done for almost half a century, on this tiny island in the Chesapeake Bay. But this summer, things are different. Now, when she makes the multilayer masterpieces, she is producing the official state dessert of Maryland. The recipe is the same, but circumstances have changed.

“I’m proud that it’s put this little island on the map,” says Ms. Guy, who lives, and bakes, in the house where she was raised. “But it’s a double-edged sword.”

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The bill designating Smith Island Cake as the state dessert, which the governor signed into law in late April, has not only put these 4.4 marshy square miles on the map but brought them international attention. The island and its cake quickly became a darling of glossy food magazines and TV cooking shows, and a destination for French and Japanese news crews.

The cakes were always a staple of family birthdays and funerals, church suppers, and school bake sales. “Now it’s been commercialized. It’s become a cutthroat thing,” complains Guy, a widow who tries to earn some extra income by baking about a dozen cakes a day for local restaurants. “It breaks my heart.”

Yet commercializing the Smith Island Cake was the point of naming it the official state dessert, and others see the cake’s spreading fame as a welcome boost to the island’s sagging economy, one otherwise totally dependent upon the vagaries of the shellfish harvest from Chesapeake Bay.

As the cake has gained stature, though, it has raised questions as sticky as the frosting on Guy’s spatula: What is an “authentic” Smith Island Cake? Who should be making them? And, most important, who should profit?

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The layer cake holds a special place in Smith Island culture, which has developed in splendid isolation for three centuries. Here, most residents are related by blood or marriage, and life revolves around tides, winds, and the Methodist Church – which, in the absence of any elected mayor or town council, acts as the island’s informal governing body.

There is no movie theater, no bowling alley, no restaurant open past 4 p.m., no liquor sales, no sidewalks, few cars, and not even a traffic light to run.

It is Maryland’s only inhabited offshore island, one on which the human population, like that of blue crabs and oysters that have sustained local watermen for centuries, is dwindling. While the 2000 US Census counted 324 full-time residents, the island’s historian, Jennings Evans, puts the current figure at 230.

For island mothers and daughters, or “come-ins” who marry into a Smith Island family, the ability to bake a layer cake is an essential skill. The cake is the coin of the realm for so many social events – the church potluck supper, the summer Camp Meeting homecoming, community bingo games. The highlight of the annual Halloween social at the elementary school is the “cakewalk,” a combination cake beauty contest and musical chairs.

The cakes are usually built with eight, nine, or 10 pancake-thin layers (some cakes go as high as 14) alternating with layers of frosting. The cake is usually yellow, but sometimes chocolate, made from scratch or from a mix, with the baker’s own secret additions. In truth, the cake is merely a vehicle to deliver the star of the confection, the homemade frosting.

Frosting is key to the cake’s epicurean as well as architectural ambitions: It’s what imparts the rich taste, dense texture, and structural integrity. No toothpicks or other engineering assistance is allowed.

“You’ve got to get your frosting right, or they’ll slide,” says Mary Ada Marshall as she puts together a statuesque peanut-butter-fudge cake in her kitchen in Tylerton, one of three island communities.

Marshall sculpts her eight-layer cake in an assortment of flavors, depending on the season: the traditional (and still most popular) cooked chocolate frosting, along with banana, orange, coconut, pineapple, strawberry, peach, and island-grown fig and pomegranate. She bakes them quickly – in just 25 minutes – and in quantity. “In a good week, I’ll make 25 cakes,” she says as she flips a hot cake disk out of a pan and places it atop a swirled cushion of frosting. “I bake them as people order them. They call. I don’t do computer.”

The orders pour in, from Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Georgia, South Carolina, Wisconsin. “I even mailed one to Baghdad,” she says, a birthday gift for a soldier.

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The daily tour boat from Crisfield arrives at the dock in Ewell, the island’s largest village, at a little past 1 p.m. Hungry tourists walk off Captain Alan Tyler’s vessel and into his family’s restaurant, the Bayside Inn. “The boat lands, I open the door,” says Betty Jo Tyler, the captain’s daughter, “and people point to the cake we have on display and say, ‘That’s what we’ve come for. We gotta have a slice of that!’ ”

Ms. Tyler gladly obliges, selling five to six cakes, either whole ($29) or sliced into 16 pieces ($3.95 a slice) a day in the summer. Guy bakes the Bayside’s cakes, and sales are definitely up since the native dessert gained official state status.

And now there is another place to purchase cakes – the Smith Island Cake Company, a recently opened bakery in what was once the island’s general store. But the owner, Theresa Siejack, lives in Ohio, and while she has been an occasional resident of the island, such offshore ownership doesn’t sit well with some locals.

Since the shop opened on July 4, displaying a colorful assortment of layer cakes packaged for take-away in pink boxes, the Cake Company has been producing about 12 frosting-slathered creations a day in its high-capacity oven.

Tourists account for most of the customers, but the bakery hopes to launch a website ordering system. “We aren’t trying to steal anybody’s customers,” says Terri Swann, manager of the bakery, who has lived on the island for 15 years. “There’s enough business on the Internet for everybody.”

Over on the mainland, a daughter of Smith Island is also poised to seize the moment. Dana Evans and her family moved from Smith Island to Salisbury, Md., six years ago, carrying her family recipe with her. She opened the doors of Classic Smith Island Cakes bakery in 2003.

Her production facility is nothing like the solitary kitchen of the Smith Island cottage bakers. Here, employees work in an assembly line, each with her own specific task in the process: Some mix batters and frostings; others watch the ovens; and the most experienced assemble and ice the final cakes. Classic Cakes now turns out about 1,200 Smith Island cakes a week, supplying restaurants as far away as Pittsburgh.

Dana Evans was an active member of the “Cake Team,” which lobbied hard in Annapolis to gain the state’s imprimatur for the Smith Island cake. “It means a lot to me and my people on Smith Island,” says Evans, whose mother and siblings still live there. “There’s enough business for everybody. A rising tide floats all boats.”

But it may lift some higher than others. To sell to off-islanders, bakers here have to ship their cakes to Crisfield on the mail boat or cruise boat, which costs an extra $2 per cake. Ingredients on the island are more expensive, too.

“I just don’t like that those making the most profit aren’t the ones here,” says Guy, who still only “suggests” a price the recipient of one of her cakes should pay. “They’re over there [on the mainland] with big businesses.”

Questions persist, too, about whether off-island cakes are really Smith Island Cakes. Some of the cottage bakers believe the “terroir” of Smith Island is essential to the cake’s identity, employing the same rationale used by European wine, cheese, and other specialty food producers to protect their products. “I believe a Smith Island Cake comes from Smith Island, made by a Smith Islander,” says Guy.

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