From crab cake to 10-layer cake

July 29, 1999|By ROB KASPER | ROB KASPER,SUN COLUMNIST

Maybe this crab cake tastes so good because I am eating it on Smith Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Or maybe this crab cake tastes so good because of the effort involved in getting here.

I drive two hours from Baltimore to Point Lookout State Park on the southern tip of St. Mary's County early in the morning. By 10 a.m., I hop aboard a ferry, the Chelsea Lane Tyler, and make the 1 1/2-hour passage from the Western Shore to the island.

The boat deposits me and other passengers on the docks of Ewell, where the Bayside Inn, a family-style restaurant, serves up crab cakes and other fare.

The crab cake -- a golden lump of goodness, crisp on the outside and full of moist flavorful crab meat -- sends me into ecstasy. I decide maybe the crab cake tastes so good because the crabs were swimming in nearby waters only a few hours before lunch is served.

Others who eat the crab cakes also are wowed. Roxanne Green of Baltimore, who took the cruise to Smith Island with her husband, Brian, is impressed that there is no shell or cartilage.

"It is the first crab cake I have eaten that I didn't have to pick anything out of," she says.

Dale "Call Me Captain" Scheible, who runs a recreational fishing operation in Ridge near Point Lookout, has tasted a few crab cakes in his time. He gives these high praise.

"This crab cake is so good that if you put it on the bill of your cap, your tongue will beat a hole in your forehead trying to get to it," he says.

The grand crab cake is a high point in a day of exceptionally good food on Smith Island, where I continue my eating journey around the state. The crab cakes are served as part of a pat-your-stomach buffet for $12.50 at the Bayside.

I start off with a bowl of outstanding Maryland crab soup, brimming with crab flavor and fresh vegetables. I also make the acquaintance of several perfectly cooked clam fritters, a large helping of steaming corn pudding, a mound of sweet potatoes topped with brown sugar, fresh cole slaw, homemade rolls, macaroni salad, sliced ham, roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, and slices of applesauce pie and sheet cake.

I load up my plate and sit at one of many round tables filled with joyful eaters. Scheible, who is sitting at the table, summarizes the bounty: "This is some kind of fine."

Capt. Alan Tyler, whose family runs the Smith Island passenger ferry boats and the restaurant, dines with us. He is a pleasant man with a shock of white hair, who says that at 64, he is "just hanging out." He seems very busy to me.

Tyler has been bringing visitors to the island for more than 20 years, running boats from Point Lookout Wednesdays through Sundays and seven days a week from Crisfield. He says he came up with the idea while operating the "school boat," which transports children from the island's three communities -- Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point -- to Crisfield.

When school ended, Tyler began filling his boat with tourists and bringing them to the island. Ten years ago, he opened the Bayside in Ewell, hiring local residents to cook and relying on his daughter, Betty Jo, to run the business.

Visitors who want to scoot around Smith Island on a golf cart or bicycle can rent vehicles at a stand outside the restaurant. The stand, which is staffed by Tyler's 10-year-old granddaughter, Chelsea, also sells snowballs.

I am tempted by the golf carts, but after my large lunch, I decide I need exercise. I walk around Ewell. I see many small, neat houses. From time to time, I hear voices lifted in song. The voices drift from a large white building on the edge of a cemetery, where an eight-day religious revival is under way.

I wander into the Driftwood General Store, where islanders buy sandwiches and sodas, and exchange good-natured ribbings. At the Smith Island Center, I watch a 20-minute film that features watermen and longtime residents, who describe their way of life and love for the remote island.

I also call on 81-year-old Frances Kitching, one of the island's gifted cooks and co-author, with Susan Stiles Dowell, of the 1981 classic, "Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook."

We discuss the 10-layer cake, a dessert Smith Island cooks are known for. Mrs. Kitching tells me there are imitation cakes out there -- cakes that have 10 layers but aren't from Smith Island kitchens.

She tells me how to detect the impostors.

"If the top of the cake is flat, it is Smith Island," she says. "If it is not," she waves her hand in a dismissive gesture, not completing the sentence.

Mrs. Kitching gives me a slice of her 10-layer cake wrapped in wax paper. I carry it with me across the bay. I carry it with me as I get in my car. I carry it home, where I savor this slice of Smith Island life.

It is a remarkable cake with a skilled mixture of thin layers of yellow cake, butter and chocolate icing. It is pleasing but not too sweet.

I had been suffering from palate fatigue at the start of the day. But after devouring the amazing Smith Island crab cakes, the fragrant bowls of crab soup, the delicate clam fritters and Mrs. Kitching's delectable 10-layer cake, my palate is not only revived, it is born again.

Look for Rob Kasper's eating odyssey on Saturday and Monday in the Today section. Coming Saturday: Grand-slam home fries, lunch at a military hangout and a healthy salad.

Island of the crab cake

Day 8

1. Cruise boats to Bayside Inn

Ewell, Smith Island

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Pub Date: 7/29/99

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