Southern Agenda

Moved to Tiers

Illustration: Tim Bower

Historians have long tried to sort out the sweet origin story of the Smith Island cake, which comprises up to ten layers of yellow cake held together by seams of chocolate frosting. Some say that before electricity reached the namesake Chesapeake Bay island in the 1950s, home cooks found it easier to bake thinner cake layers in a wood-burning oven. Others note that all the icing kept the cake moist for bakers’ husbands who would pack a slice for lunch while crabbing in the bay. “It put our island on the map,” says the seventy-five-year-old baker Mary Ada Marshall, who was born and raised there. Fifteen years ago, Marshall played a key role in the cake’s designation as the official state dessert, an effort requiring early-morning ferry trips and long drives to Annapolis to shamelessly bribe legislators with slices. The lobbying paid off with national publicity and a booming mail-order business (the number follows; she has no website), especially around March 25, Maryland Day. Marshall bakes up to ten cakes a day and tops each with a state flag on a toothpick. 410-425-2023