Smith Island Cake is a Maryland and Somerset County treasure! It was proclaimed the Maryland State Dessert in 2008. The 8 to 10-layer cake is well-known by locals and sought after by visitors from all over. Although the definition of the cake in the legislation lists the classic vanilla cake and chocolate fudge icing flavor, it is also recognized that Smith Island cake comes in many different flavor combinations.
The beloved cake is now getting a historic sign marker in front of the Smith Island Cultural Center in Ewell, Maryland. The marker will be manufactured and funded through a grant received by Smith Island United from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation’s Hungry for History Program.
Historical Significance of Smith Island Cake
Although the true origin of Smith Island Cakes remains unknown, the local islanders recall when they first began seeing the cakes gain popularity. They also provided evidence like letters to prove that the dessert is over 50 years old—a requirement from the Pomeroy Foundation for the Hungry for History signage.
Mary Ada Marshall has lived on Smith Island her whole life and still bakes Smith Island Cakes on the regular for customers near and far. Mrs. Marshall fondly recalls cakewalk fundraisers on the island around Halloween as a young girl. These events involved a game where participants walk in a circle like musical chairs and one lucky participant wins the cake when the music stops. When the events started gaining in popularity, they began cutting cakes in half to provide more prizes and more rounds of the game. One year in particular, Mrs. Marshall remembers the fuss made about someone making a 6-layer cake. It was something unique that they hadn’t seen before.
After that, it seemed the rest of the island bakers took on the challenge and six-layer cakes became much more prominent, leading to 7, even 10 layers that we see now. Mary Marshall made her first Smith Island Cake at the age of 11 when her mother stepped out of the house to run some errands. Although she had to use a footstool to get around the kitchen and she had batter flying out of the bowl from the mixer, she made a delicious cake with 7 layers.
Throughout the years on Smith Island, jobs were hard to come by with few professions needed around town. Baking and selling Smith Island Cakes became somewhat of a cottage industry for many women and families to collect a steady income and participate from the comfort of their homes.
Mary Ada Marshall still bakes the famous cakes to this day and her kitchen appliances prove it! She’s on her 4th KitchenAid mixer and 4th oven. Mrs. Marshall only takes orders by phone and will send them to be picked up at the mainland or ship them out depending on the distance. Her busiest times are holidays, birthdays, and special occasions. There are times when Mrs. Marshall can average up to 10 cakes a week each with 8 layers in a wide variety of flavors.
Although there is no one clear moment when Smith Island Cakes came to be, the influence and impact on Smith Island, the state of Maryland, and many fans around the country are evident in every layer. Somerset County is proud to be home to Smith Island and the Maryland State Dessert. Keep an eye out for the historic marker coming soon!