RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A quiz now. Quick. What U.S. state has its own official drink, dinosaur, cat and crustacean? The answer is Maryland. And it's now considering adding a state dessert. The candidate, weighing in light as air, was recently sampled, oh so reluctantly, by NPR's senior correspondent Ketzel Levine.
(Soundbite of silverware clanking)
KETZEL LEVIN: Mm. That is some naughty cake. Mm.
The Smith Island cake is an architectural wonder. Eight identical, yellow, Frisbee thin layers, stacked with hints of dark frosting and swaddled in sweetness - the old fashioned tooth decaying kind.
Ms. JENNIFER DIZE: What's the secret would be? The chocolate. The chocolate fudge icing.
LEVINE: The fudge icing has a slightly cracked glaze. Just the slightest pressure from the tongue, and you're through to the rich, soft chocolate. And that's just the way Smith Island's Jennifer Dize intended it, the way it's done on this little island in the Chesapeake Bay.
Mrs. Dize's cakes are ever so slightly different from her neighbors. Hers are nine layers high.
Ms. DIZE: (Unintelligible) one makes a nine-layer chocolate. And we've got some that makes eight layers, and then there's some that make 12 or 14 layers.
LEVINE: Pretty showy, and a complete give away, since the women are known by their layers in a community this small, 12 miles off the Maryland coast.
(Soundbite of birds)
LEVINE: 1670, that's more or less when the island was settled by colonists with names such as Evans, Tyler, Marshall - surnames still carried by a whole lot of people here, people who can count their families back five, 10, 13 generations - all on this little slip of an isle.
(Soundbite of birds squawking)
LEVINE: So it won't surprise you that tradition rules on Smith Island, as does God, the Methodist Church and the no-liquor law. The Chesapeake Bay rules, too. And the edict has not been good for an economy long dependent on the sea. It's going to take more than crabs and oysters for the islanders to maintain body and soul.
Ms. MARY AIDA MARSHALL: Hi, my name is Mary Aida Marshall, and I'm a true resident of Smith Island, lived there my whole life. And I am one of the bakers that made this cake.
LEVINE: We're hearing Mary Aida Marshal testify before members of the Maryland Legislature as to why the Smith island cake deserves to be designated state dessert.
Ms. MARSHALL: My mother made them. My grandmother made them. They've always been there.
LEVINE: So why not celebrate this slice of Maryland history? That's the gist of the argument, anyway. Not exactly layered in controversy, but filled with the hope that a little state-sanctioned publicity might bring a new industry to the island, baking, and help preserve a historic community.
A yellow cake with chocolate frosting is really no match for what ails Smith Island. The population is aging. It's crabbing, it's waning, and every year, the island loses ground to rising seas.
However, the layer cake is only one of Smith Island's enduring recipes. The other, says resident Jennifer Dize, is faith.
Ms. DIZE: There's many storms blowed over here. And you look at the tsunamis and things like that, how they've wiped out areas, and to think that we're still here. So you've got to have faith in something.
LEVINE: Sprinkle with tenacity, and you've got the makings of an everyday Smith Island meal.
Ketzel Levine, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: Get that recipe for the cake and explore a life on Smith Island at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
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