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Smith Island Cake Poised for Maryland Fame

 
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No one can fix the date when the first chocolate layer cake came out of a Smith Island oven, but the recipe goes back at least four generations.
Elaine Eff for NPR /
No one can fix the date when the first chocolate layer cake came out of a Smith Island oven, but the recipe goes back at least four generations.
People frequently assume that the wafer-thin layers of the Smith Island cake are created by slicing up one huge layer. Not so! Here in the island kitchen of Jennifer Dize, the proof's in the pans.
John Poole, NPR /
People frequently assume that the wafer-thin layers of the Smith Island cake are created by slicing up one huge layer. Not so! Here in the island kitchen of Jennifer Dize, the proof's in the pans.

Unless you're a big fan of the Chesapeake Bay, it's likely you've never heard of Smith Island, let alone tasted the island's historic layer cake. It's an architectural wonder, with anywhere from six to 12 ultra-thin yellow cakes layered with chocolate, then frosted with the kind of confection some of us consider a reason to live.

"What's the secret?" says Smith Island baker Jennifer Dize with a secretive smile. "The cooked chocolate fudge icing."

I'll say. And that icing's very unforgiving stuff. Like an old-fashioned cupcake, it has the very thinnest glaze. Sneak a finger-full and there's no covering your traces, no swirling it back with a spatula into soft chocolate waves.

Understanding the temptation, the Maryland Legislature wants to make the cake legal. An eight-layer version of the Smith Island cake is likely to soon be designated Maryland's official state dessert. Only two other states have named one: Massachusetts (Boston cream pie) and South Dakota (kuchen).

Should the cake take the honor, it will then join Maryland's many other state symbols, among them the official cat (calico), crustacean (blue crab) and drink (milk).

And milk is just what you'll need to wash down a piece of Smith Island cake, likely too sweet for anyone who didn't grow up in those hard-core, butter-sugar-chocolate days of the 1940s and '50s. And it's probably too sweet as well for anyone who doesn't enjoy the tidal effects of blood sugar rising and falling.

(Who would have thought that white flour and granulated sugar would end up the food stuffs of only those hardy enough to tough 'em out?)

Nevertheless, a taste of Smith Island cake is a valuable clue into the community that gives the cake its name. It's a place where tradition rules — along with the Methodist Church and the no-liquor law — and where the rugged isolation of island life sets a premium on neighborly gestures both simple and sweet.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ketzel Levine
NPR Senior Correspondent Ketzel Levine reports for Morning Edition.