Published April 06, 2008
ANNAPOLIS, Md. – A dozen thin layers of cake separated by creamy layers of sweet frosting — what's not to love about a Smith Island cake, the hallmark dessert of Maryland's Eastern Shore?
The state's favorite final course has gotten a lot of attention this spring after state lawmakers proposed recognizing the cake as the Maryland's official dessert. But politics can be a sticky business, and with time running out before lawmakers conclude business for the year, the Smith Island cake may not be in for a sweet ending.
The dessert designation has cleared the Senate but not the House. Though lawmakers profess nothing but love for the cake, an unusual dessert Smith Islanders trace to British settlers, fans of the cake are getting a primer in the delicate politics of naming official symbols.
Some lawmakers shy away from designations because they attract news stories — and then complaints that lawmakers are wasting time in Annapolis on trifling matters. Others say adding to the state's 21 existing symbols would take attention away from better-known ones — such as blue crabs, Baltimore orioles and Chesapeake Bay retrievers. The objections may sink the cake proposal.
"It's too soon to tell," said Delegate Peter Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat who leads a committee where the Smith Island bill is stalled — along with a bill designating walking as the state exercise and another with even longer odds, naming soybeans the official state crop.
The House approved preliminary versions of the Smith Island cake and walking bills Saturday, the second-to-last day of the term, indicating the designations were headed toward last-minute approval.
But this much was clear as lawmakers neared their final hours in business for the year. Seemingly straightforward, noncontroversial official designations routinely get lost in the tangle of state politics.
"There's definitely a perception that it's not as important as everything else we do down here, on education and health care and so many other things," said Delegate Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, an Eastern Shore Republican and author of the almost-hopeless soybean proposal.
But Haddaway-Riccio said she's not upset her soybean proposal won't make it. Like many designations, she said, the proposal was suggested by a group of schoolchildren on a government project, and even a failing bill teaches them plenty about how government works. Earlier this year, a group of fifth-graders from St. Michaels Elementary School testified before a House committee on the soybean proposal.
"That's something a lot of adults never get to do," Haddaway-Riccio said. Recalling her own student stint as a legislative page in Annapolis, Haddaway-Riccio said involving children in state government can inspire them to seek careers in public service.
"Whether it passes or not, it's still a great opportunity," she said.
A legislative failure may be moot for the Smith Island cake, too. Eastern Shore lawmakers proposed the designation to boost baking business for an island struggling with a decline in its traditional fishing and crabbing industry. News reports about the bill have brought television cameras, newspaper features and a boom in orders for women in the Eastern Shore communities that market the cakes.
"It's been fun, really fun," said Mary Ada Marshall, a Smith Island baker who posed in her kitchen for The New York Times for a recent story about the dessert.
"The publicity has helped people who have never heard of it before," said Susan Patt, pastry chef at Classic Cakes in a mainland town nearby. Classic Cakes sells 20 different flavors of Smith Island cakes, and since the bill was proposed this winter, Patt says orders have poured in.
She doesn't understand why lawmakers are skittish about giving the cake a state seal of approval.
"What do you have to lose? They don't have anything to lose by saying it's the state cake, but businesses have everything to gain," said Patt, who made 450 slices of the most common flavor of Smith Island cake — yellow cake with chocolate frosting — for legislators and their staffs to promote the bill.
Lawmakers who favor state symbols are just as stumped.
Sen. Verna Jones, sponsor of the stalled walking proposal, cited that bill's tortured past. Walking was designated the official exercise in 2003, then vetoed by then-Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who was not swayed even by a lighthearted "walk-in" protest by some Montgomery County schoolchildren who thought of the designation. Now, the walking measure has passed in the Senate but is also stuck in the House.
Why so hard to get items added to the list of official state symbols?
"I really don't know," Jones said, shaking her head.