CROSS THE BAY BRIDGE onto the Eastern Shore, and you’ll likely see signs for Smith Island cake at nearly every seafood shack and produce stand that dots the string of tiny towns on the 115-mile drive down to the tip of the peninsula in Crisfield. Every person has their own riff on the iconic layer cake, but here, in Crisfield, the Smith Island Baking Company is the only bakery that bears the name of the 400-year-old remote fishing village located just over the Tangier Sound, and whose fame over the last 11 years has led to the shipping of cakes across the country.
Prior to the COVID crisis, theirs was the Smith Island cake you could eat at Nordstrom’s café, the Silver Diner, Harris Teeter, McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood & Steaks, and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. And devotees can be found way beyond the bay.
“I’ll never forget, I got a call from a guy in Beverly Hills on a Friday afternoon,” says the baking company’s founder, Brian Murphy. “He said, ‘My wife is going to kill me. She wanted a Smith Island cake for her birthday and her birthday is tomorrow.’ By Saturday, he had one of our cakes.” Coincidentally, on that same Friday afternoon, a customer “wanted a Smith Island cake while elk hunting in Idaho,” recalls Murphy. “I sent a cake there, too.”
“We ship to a lot of names you’d recognize,” adds Murphy. “The highest people in government, the most famous athletes and actors you’ve heard of—at the end of the day, they just want a great cake.”
Not bad for a regional specialty that’s long kept a low profile in Eastern Shore church basements but is now widely known beyond the mid-Atlantic. That’s in large part thanks to the bakery, which baked its first cake on Smith Island on June 24, 2009, before relocating to the mainland of Crisfield seven years later. Today, “let them eat cake” is the actual business motto.
While working as a commodities trader for Constellation Energy, Murphy enrolled in an M.B.A. program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business to further his career. When his department was eliminated, the father of seven knew that he wanted to start his own business. He considered going into textiles or lumber, but on his mother’s birthday on February 8, 2009, he found his true calling. “We were eating a Smith Island cake,” he says. “I grew up on the Eastern Shore but had never had one before.”
The slice of signature Maryland cake— slathered with fudge between every ultrathin, buttery layer—was a gustatory revelation. And Murphy was surprised to learn that the namesake island, where it’s believed that oystermen’s wives concocted towering treats to fortify their seafaring husbands during the fall oyster harvest, never had its own official bakery to produce the famed cakes deemed the state dessert in 2008.
For centuries, the cakes—whipped up in home kitchens—have stood as a symbol of celebration, fellowship, and community. “After I ate my mother’s cake, I took a ferry to Smith Island and met with Mary Ada Marshall,” says Murphy, “the patroness of Smith Island cakes and the person who spearheaded the idea of making it the state dessert.”
Murphy spoke with Marshall about his idea of opening a bakery on the island, a small, remote speck on the Chesapeake Bay just above the Virginia line with no local government, no traffic lights, no grocery stores, and several churches. “At the end of our conversation, she prayed for me,” he says, smiling at the memory. “I said to her, ‘You prayed for me,’” he recounts. “And she said, ‘Honey, you can’t live in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay and not pray.’” So, with the blessing of Marshall and her cohort of “cake ladies,” Murphy opened the Smith Island Baking Company, employing a small staff of locals in a place where employment can be hard to find.
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