Loaded with luscious layers

Dessert: Outsiders have been making a fuss about Smith Island's rich cake for some time now.

May 05, 1999|By Tracy Sahler | Tracy Sahler,Special to the Sun

Frances Kitching is probably Smith Island's most famous cook. She's been making crab cakes, corn pudding and coconut cakes for "a-many a year" in the tiny eastern Chesapeake Bay community.

But even she can't say what drives the islanders to make their famous 10-layer cakes. At a time when most "homemade" cakes consist of two fat layers stuck together with creamy icing scooped from a store-bought tub, Smith Island cake stands alone.

Uncut, it looks like any other cake. Removing the first slice reveals an impressive arrangement of 10 quarter-inch-thick layers with just enough chocolate icing to hold it all together.

"It's a beautiful cake, and I tell you, they're rich," said Jack Paul, executive director of the J. Millard Tawes Museum in Crisfield, Smith Island's mainland connection. Paul remembers paying about $25 at a school auction for his first Smith Island cake after moving to Crisfield 12 years ago, but he has seen the cakes sell for as much as $50.

"I don't know how these people make them," he said. "It's a labor of love."

Kitching, 80, doesn't know why islanders take such pains with their multilayer cakes either, but she is aware of the fascination they hold for outsiders.

"It's getting to be too well-known. Too many people want it," said Kitching, walking slowly into her kitchen on a recent afternoon to make yet another Smith Island cake.

Although she has been baking them since she was a little girl, she didn't include the Smith Island cake as one of the 100 recipes in her cookbook, "Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook," written with Susan Stiles Dowell, (Tidewater Publications/Cornell Maritime Press, 1981, $11.95). She can't recall folks making a fuss about the cake until about 15 years ago.

"I'm sure everyone's known about it for a long time, but they just never got out to do it, I guess," she said. "If you had a good place to bake them, you could sell them every day."

But buying cakes isn't Kitching's style. For decades, she has made some kind of scratch cake just about every week. And she sees nothing daunting about making a 10-layered one.

Once a year, she bakes 20 Smith Island cakes with the help of her daughter and sends them to Ocean City for the Maryland Association of Counties annual convention. Governors have eaten her Smith Island cake, she said, her voice filled with more matter-of-factness than pride.

"Some people say, 'I couldn't do it to save my life.' I say, 'Hey, you can do anything you want.' "

Kitching's cooking career started simply enough more than 40 years ago. She was the only islander willing to provide meals and a comfortable bed for utility workers from the mainland. Her big house had plenty of space and she loved to have guests at her table.

"Cooking's up my alley. My mom wouldn't let me cook, because I made a mess," said Kitching in her down-to-earth style. "My grandmother said if you don't mess up things, you're no cook."

The cookbook is dedicated to her grandmother, Maggie W. Evans.

For three decades, Kitching served generous family-style meals for $10 a head, and counted among her guests Sylvester Stallone, who came in a helicopter one night with five friends; 18 New Yorkers who showed up for dinner unannounced one time; and a National Geographic crew who filmed her making a Smith Island cake for her 50th wedding anniversary to her husband, Ernest Kitching, in 1984.

The Smith Island Center in Ewell shows a videotape of her making the cake as part of its exploration of island life. Ewell is the largest of three towns on Smith Island, which sits between Chesapeake Bay and Tangier Sound, a 45-minute boat ride west from Crisfield.

A tightknit community whose residents make their living on the water, the Smith Islanders have turned to tourism as crab and oyster harvests have declined and erosion has threatened the future on the bay.

Slowed by age and poor health, Kitching closed the Smith Island Inn in her house in 1986. Visitors are welcome to stay at her Smith Island Motel across the way, but now she fixes only breakfast breads for guests. "I don't cook much these days, just enough for us to get by," she said.

But even with heart and back problems, Kitching can still bake and assemble a perfect Smith Island cake. She graciously set aside an afternoon to show a visitor how a few commonplace ingredients can be turned into the kind of dessert that makes people's mouths fall open before they even take their first bite.

Her methods reflect old-fashioned frugality and habits that are part of life in a place accessible only by boat. Adding butter to the sugar in the mixing bowl, she carefully scraped the wrapper with a spatula to catch any butter left behind. She used the wrapper to rub oil around the cake pans before throwing it away. She punched open the cans of evaporated milk (it was easier to keep canned milk on the island than bring in fresh) with an oyster knife. A bit of leftover batter was poured into a 5-inch pan to make a little cake to share with her husband.

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