Having our cake

February 23, 2008|By Peter Jensen

By late February, one can generally count on some naysayer blathering on in the media, traditional or otherwise, about how the General Assembly is wasting its time with bills to designate an official state something-or-other. The latest to get attention is a proposal to make Smith Island cake the state dessert.

The true outrage is that anyone would be so negative about dessert - which, as any spelling teacher will tell you, comes with its own second helping, albeit of s's. We've been able to put a state flower on our dinner tables since 1918; how did we go so long without an official dessert? Talk about elected leaders out of the mainstream.

But seriously, it's foolish to carp on politicians who allow Smith Islanders a few minutes to extol the virtues of their richly frosted 10-layer cakes. Even to recognize it as an official dessert does little discernible harm (aside from any anguish it causes us dieters). Here's the latest cost estimate provided by the crack analysts at the Department of Legislative Services: zilch.

If only the General Assembly passed more bills like that. The more time lawmakers spend on state desserts, the less they can devote to the misguided and costly stuff that's their usual bread and butter.

Still, as much as we defend the right to designate a state dessert, we must also express a hesitation for that winning confection to be Smith Island cake. Not that there's anything wrong with Smith Island cake - or, particularly, with the late Frances E. Kitching, the beloved Smith Islander most closely associated with it.

The problem is that it's a cake rarely seen outside Somerset County. There's not much that makes it uniquely Maryland's - aside from its Smith Island roots.

What might serve as a better alternative? Well, that's a challenge. Maryland's savory cuisine is obvious enough. Our seafood selections, from crab cakes to oysters, enjoy a rich history. So does more regional fare like Southern Maryland stuffed ham, or Eastern Shore beaten biscuits and stewed muskrat (admittedly an acquired taste, but undeniably Maryland).

The ideal candidate might feature apples from the western counties or peaches from the eastern, but no single recipe comes to mind. There's Lady Baltimore cake, but as the cake has nothing to do with Baltimore and is thought to have been invented in South Carolina, it's probably not suitable.

Is Maryland's dessert cart that bereft? Surely not. What's needed is a bake-off so that all manner of sweets, from Garrett to Worcester, can be considered. And please, let's not leave the judgment solely in the hands of senators and delegates. Editorial writers are probably the ideal arbiters. Yes, on second thought, that's surely the case.

In viticulture, the French prize terroir - a sense of place. Whether or not the iron chefs of Smith Island reign supreme (or their cake makes a paragraph in the Maryland Manual), let us never hesitate to praise the cuisine that is uniquely ours.

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