Another legislative session, another opportunity for controversy.
Forget taxes, forget slots - they're so last session. No, for the regular session that starts tomorrow, the General Assembly has on its plate, literally, this question: Should Maryland designate the Smith Island Cake as the official state dessert?
Let me ask the question another way: Does this sophisticated state, home to such floury celebrities as Duff "Ace of Cakes" Goldman, want its official dessert to be one whose recipe includes as an ingredient, "one 18 1/4 -oz. box yellow cake mix, preferably Duncan Hines?"
"It's a product of the people," Jay Parker, the town manager of Princess Anne, says in the cake's defense. "It's an ordinary-folks dessert."
Well, let's just all move to Utah, where the official snack is ... Jell-O.
Parker and his fellow gourmands at the Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Council are working with their legislators to get state recognition for their beloved sweet, which is essentially a layer cake, except it has many thin layers rather than the usual two or three thicker ones. Often, it's a yellow cake with chocolate icing, but there are endless variations, even in the number of layers.
"Some does 10, some does 12, some does nine," says Mary Ada Marshall, a lifelong resident of the remote island in the Chesapeake Bay, which is only accessible by boat.
Marshall does eight, which she thinks gives just the right cake-to-icing ratio. "We like it not all frosting; we like the cake, too," she says.
Marshall, who is 60, made her first cake at age 11, seizing the opportunity of her mother going to the mainland for a doctor's appointment to try her own hand at the multi-layered wonder, which came out "perfect," she said. Since then, she's made cakes for family and friends, and they became so popular she now sells them at her son's store on the island and by mail. (A number of bakers on the island and elsewhere on the shore also sell them.) She made one recently to send to Iraq, as a birthday present to an officer her daughter knows.
Marshall's recipe - or rather, one of them, since she has a "mile-long list" of flavor variations - is the one that seems in greatest circulation. It was printed in Saveur magazine and involves ground-up Reese's peanut butter cups that you sprinkle on the icing.
And about that Duncan Hines mix? Marshall says she essentially uses it as cake flour - it's already sifted and measured, and she doesn't follow the recipe on the box but adds more ingredients, including eggs, butter and evaporated milk.
While Marshall remembers a lot of women on the island making the cake for generations, some believe the late Frances Kitching, who had a restaurant on the island, created it.
"She was such an innovator," said Susan Stiles Dowell, who co-authored Mrs. Kitching's Smith Island Cookbook, which included her cake recipe in later editions. "The layers are reminiscent of a French pastry."
In an interview that Kitching did for a 1993 issue of the Crisfield & Smith Island Newsletter, she was asked about the origin of the cake. Kitching, then in her mid-70s, said she didn't know who made the first one, but it could have been her, because her kids loved icing as much as cake.
In any event, the cakes have become popular on the Shore - and in Annapolis, where Eastern Shore legislators have been known to bring a bit of home with them. "People are fascinated by the layers," said Del. D. Page Elmore, a Republican who represents Somerset and Wicomico counties. "That in itself is unique."
The heritage council has asked Elmore to introduce legislation to honor the cake, but he hasn't drafted a bill yet, because he's still checking what kind of support the effort has among local officials and other lawmakers. One decision has been made, Elmore said: that they'll go with Kitching's from-scratch recipe.
While it may be hard to imagine opposition to such a homey sweet, who knows? Perhaps there's a powerful Berger cookie lobby out there, or rump defenders of Hutzler's Wellesley fudge cake or Haussner's violently pink strawberry pie.
Even on the Shore, there may be some dissent - last year, the Daily Times of Salisbury quoted a Somerset County Health Department official on why the rate of diabetes on the Lower Shore was higher than the national average. Among the contributing factors, the official speculated, could be residents' fondness for fried chicken, ham, dumplings and Smith Island cake.
And maybe there's some hidden trans fat in those layers - which might offend the Montgomery County delegation. Perhaps that's why Elmore isn't predicting what might happen to the proposal.
"You never know in Annapolis," Elmore said.
Find Jean Marbella's column archive at baltimoresun.com/marbella