Maryland's Decadent State Cake Is Named For A Disappearing Island

While Maryland's best-known food may be the crab cake, the state is known for other foods including lemon sticks, snowballs (even Jimmy Fallon's a fan of these), the Lazy Susan Preakness cocktail, and Natty Bo, the beer that's brewed, as per its jingle, in the "land of pleasant living." Maryland also has quite a few desserts to call its own, with Maryland Manual On-Line (the dash is theirs) listing peach pot pie, Elkridge huckleberry pudding, and Lord and Lady Baltimore cakes among the state's specialties. One of the most uniquely Maryland treats, however, may be the multi-layer Smith Island Cake that has been adopted as the official state dessert.

Smith Island cakes are made with 8 to 10 layers, with traditional ones being made of yellow cake and chocolate frosting. These days Smith Island Bakery also offers such varieties as lemon, coconut, red velvet, rainbow, and chocolate raspberry, all available for shipping nationwide. As for the reason behind the multiple layers, Salisbury University says it may have been because thin layers were easier to bake in wooden ovens (electricity wasn't available on-island before the 1950s), or it's possible that cake bakers simply liked one-upping each other by seeing who could add the most layers. Multi-layer cakes aren't that rare - seven-layer cake is a traditional Jewish dessert, while Swiss Colony has a 15-layer Dobos torte. The most interesting thing about Smith Island Cake isn't so much the number of layers as it is the endangered island where it originated.

Smith Island is slowly sinking into the sea

Before we get into Smith Island's troubles, let's explore what makes it unique. Smith Island Cultural Center & Museum says the first year-round settlers arrived from Great Britain in 1608, and so isolated has the island been over the centuries that the local dialect there is sometimes compared to Elizabethan English. Delmarva Now says that's not entirely true, as many speech patterns and words developed on the island itself. What's more, the Elizabethan era was over by 1608, so technically it would have been the Jamesian era.

Smith Island now struggles in several ways – the traditional crabbing and oystering industry took a hit from catch limits imposed to prevent overfishing, with loss of jobs leading to population decline. According to CBS Baltimore, the island had 200 residents in 2021, down from 800+ in the 1960s. The most dramatic losses, however, belong to the island itself. As the Chesapeake Bay rises, Smith Island sinks and may be underwater by 2300.

Smith Island isn't going down without a fight. New construction is slowing shoreline erosion, while the adoption of Smith Island cake as Maryland's state dessert in 2008 may be helping to boost the tourism industry. (Chesapeake Living touts the cakes as one of the island's main attractions.) As a long-time island resident named Hester Smith told The New York Times, "All the women just about make cakes. The women will pull together and try to save the island."