What Makes Smith Island Cake So Special?

Typically, it's easy to guess a state's official dessert, whether the state is in the name or by its ingredients. For example, Florida's Key Lime Pie makes use of the limes that are closely associated with the Florida Keys (via Pregel). Boston Cream Pie is, of course, the state dessert of Massachusetts. The beignet became the state dessert of Louisiana in 1986, and Missouri made the ice cream cone the official dessert for the state over 100 years after it was first introduced at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

And then you come to the official state dessert of Maryland, the Smith Island Cake, a dessert that prior to the 1990s was virtually unknown beyond the watery confines of tiny Smith Island. In fact, Chesapeake Bay Magazine said that outside of Maryland's lower Eastern shore, "the cake most associated with Smith Island was the crab cake." How did Smith Island cake become so well-known? What's so special about it? The answers involve a very special geographical location, lots of layers, and a little perfectly timed bribery.

What is Smith Island?

Smith Island is a tiny chain of islands in the Chesapeake Bay, comprising three villages and boasting a year-round population of roughly 200 residents, according to the Smith Island Center. Though the islands are located just a few miles off the shore of the mainland, there aren't any bridges to the villages; instead, residents and visitors rely on ferries for transportation to and from the island. 

To give you an idea of how small the island is, there's but one school, Ewell Elementary, which for the 2022-2023 school year enrolled a total of nine students from kindergarten through seventh grade, as well as a single teacher who also happens to be the principal.

Smith Islanders rely largely on the water to earn a living, with crabbing and oystering as the major industries, according to the Center, though there are businesses that cater to tourism as well. And there's a bakery on Smith Island ... just one: the Smith Island Bakery that specializes in baking and shipping the official state dessert of Maryland.

What makes this regional specialty unique?

Smith Island Cake is all about the layers. Smith Island Baking Company, which began on Smith Island but has since moved to the mainland in nearby Crisfield, Maryland, explains that the traditional Smith Island Cake has eight very thin layers, and the most traditional flavor is a moist yellow cake with a rich, fudge-like icing. 

Sally's Baking Addiction says the cake typically has anywhere from 8 to 14 layers, and an important feature of authentic Smith Island cake is that the layers are baked individually, rather than slicing a thicker cake into multiple thinner layers.

Sometimes you'll see naked cakes — with the layers exposed and the icing visible between the delicate sections of cake. Other times, for instance if you happen to wander into Smith Island Bakery, you'll find the cakes entirely sheathed in that delicious fudge icing. 

In the island's only bakery, you'll find nine-layered cakes in the traditional yellow and fudge, but also in flavors like red velvet, coconut, strawberry cream, banana, and even a colorful rainbow cake. The bakery also offers both gluten-free and sugar-free versions of the towering cakes.

What's the history of Smith Island Cakes?

What's a local food without a bit of controversy? Smith Island Cake, according to Chesapeake Bay Magazine, doesn't have a single creator, though some have claimed otherwise. Rather, it was Elaine Eff, a folklorist who assisted in establishing the Smith Island Visitor's Center, who remarked on the many-layered cake that island residents didn't seem to think was all that out-of-the-ordinary. In fact, they just called it "cake," a kind that Smith Island Baking Company says has been made on the island since the 1800s.

But Eff discovered each family had its own variations, handed down from matriarchs to their daughters. As for why there are so many layers, the Eastern Shore's Salisbury University posits two reasons: One is that the multiple layers, coupled with the rich fudge icing, helped keep the cake moist as it traveled with the watermen who journeyed the regional waters fishing and crabbing to support their families. 

In addition, since Smith Island didn't get electricity until the 1950s and 1960s, the thinner layers may have been easier to cook in wood-fired ovens. Southern Living adds that the traditional icing was made solely of sugar and chocolate, a combination that didn't need to be refrigerated, making it the perfect take-along dessert for a week-long fishing sojourn on the Bay.

How did it become the Maryland state dessert?

Chesapeake Bay Magazine says members of the Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Council, in coordination with local tourism advocates, conceived the idea of naming the Smith Island Cake as the state dessert, hoping to generate income for the island women who baked the cakes, as well as stoke interest in the region. Delegate D. Page Elmore drafted the bill in 2008, and it turns out there was a little competition for the honor of being named the official dessert of Maryland.

Though a 2008 article in the Baltimore Sun proposed several regional alternatives to the Smith Island Cake, legislators were unable to resist a tasty bribe, according to Southern Living. Advocates of making the cake the state dessert delivered "carefully plated" individual slices of Smith Island Cake to every member of the General Assembly. The bill passed in 2008, and a unique aspect of Maryland's history and geography was preserved in the official record. 

Making a Smith Island Cake is absolutely an adventurous labor of love, so ordering from one of the regional bakeries that specialize in the many-layered cakes both saves time and supports the local economy. A traditional yellow cake with fudge icing from Smith Island Bakery costs $60, which includes shipping within the U.S. Should you want a unique take on the region's flavors, Smith Island Baking Company offers an Old Bay Buttercream Smith Island Cake.