Johnnycake is a New World quickbread, made on the Atlantic coast from Atlantic Canada down to the Caribbean.
In North America, it is a quickbread based on cornmeal. It can be served as a savoury, with butter or cream corn on it, or as a sweet with syrup or jam on it, or used as sides for stews.
There are several versions in North America. Some versions are thin and crunchy, others a bit thicker and fluffier. Basic cornbread is pure cornmeal, with salt, some sugar, water, and fried up like griddlecakes. Variants now add milk, egg, wheat flour, etc.
In the state of Rhode Island, white flint corn is used, but there are local variations in the preparation, depending on which part of Narragansett Bay someone lives on. In Washington County, they scald the meal to make a fluffier johnnycake, about 3 inches (7 1/2 cm) wide. In Newport County, they add milk, and make it thin and crisp, about 5 inches (12 1/2 cm) wide. variations that scald the meal first with boiling water tend to be thicker and a bit fluffier, because the hot water causes the meal to swell.
Caribbean versions of Johnnycake use wheat flour and no cornmeal. In the Bahamas, the dough is kneaded and baked, about 2 inches (5 cm) thick. Some versions there add nutmeg to flavour it. In the Cayman Islands and Jamaica, Johnnycake is fried up as flat breads. In the Dominican Republic, it is made with wheat flour, baking soda, and water, and deep-fried.
In Australia, Johnnycake is also made with wheat flour.
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/4 cups water
Mix. Spoon some batter onto a heated, greased griddle or frying pan. Fry until bottom is a pale brown, then flip and cook the other side. Serve hot.
Literature & Lore
“In this prize exhibition of Massachusetts corn at Horticultural hall, perhaps the most interesting display is the ancient flint strain known formerly as “smutty white,” a special heritage from the Cape Cod Indians, and the best known timber for those genuine fried johnnycakes on which Rhode Island prides herself. — Boston Herald.
Ah-h-h-h! Those white, bolted meal johnnycakes—with crispy, delicious fried salt pork scraps on the side. As soon as Maine adopts the white meal johnnycake and quahog chowder, there will be nothing left to wish for gastronomically, in this wonderful state.—H-R-E in Lewiston Journal.
We have our opinion of the man who will recommend “white bolted meal” for johnnycake. Either his early education has been neglected, or he possesses perverted gastronomic faculties. The ideal foundation for real New England johnnycake is New England-grown flint corn ground in an old-fashioned gristmill, a mill where stones do the grinding. The bolting should be confined to a coarse sieve manipulated by the maker of the bread. Even at that it is too bad to waste such meal in johnnycake when it could be so much better utilized in the making of bannock and hastypudding— provided one can secure a plentiful supply of real cow’s milk and a bit of properly cured saltfish, delicately broiled, to go with it.” — All the above from: Editorial, Biddeford Journal. Biddeford, Maine. 26 January 1922. Page 3.
“H-R-E of the Lewiston Journal recently referred to the excellence of johnnycake made from “white ‘bolted meal” and we took the liberty to inform him that he wouldn’t know what real johnnycake was until he had eaten some made from northern grown flint corn ground (between stones in an old-fashioned mill.) H-R-E came back with the declaration that the meal he consumed was thus ground and then launches into a prose-poem description of the old mill and the miller as he knew them, and concludes: We sometimes wish we could go back to the simpler and purer foods such as johnnycake and molasses, and to keep you friendly, to bannock and hasty pudding, but close on the heels of the wish comes the thought. —would we eat it if we could get it? To encourage a seeker for the truth, we respond: We would and we do, for there are still a few places where the meal—not white or bolted, however—can be obtained through the exercise of patience and persistence. Any campaign for purer and simpler foods, including those that went to the making of early New England’s bone and sinew, deserves encouragement.” — Editorial, Biddeford Journal. Biddeford, Maine. 2 February 1922. Page 2.
“Below cornpone is hoe-cake and this is made simply of cornmeal, salt and water, very thin in texture, and fried in a skillet if one has fat for frying, or often in a Dutch oven or over a hearth or camp fire. The field hands of slavery times and the soldiers in the War Between the States baked it on a shovel or hoe held to the open flame. When made of good sweet water-ground meal, it is crisp and palatable, much like Mexican corn-chips.” — Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. Cross Creek. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1942.
The debate spilled over into state politics in 1922, when representative Benjamin Boyd, from Portsmouth, tried to have his hometown version declared Rhode Island’s official johnnycake. “Down my way we take the meal just as it comes off the stone,” Boyd explained. “We mix it with a little skim milk and a pinch of salt and we put it on the griddle so that it will run out nice and thin. We don’t scald all the pep out of it, and we never wash the griddle. We aren’t ashamed of the taste of real corn and sausage grease.”
“Over my way, we scald the meal and we wash the griddle,” retorted James T. Caswell, representative of Narragansett in western Rhode Island.
Boyd lambasted his opponent’s johnnycakes in verse: “South County mush, South County mush, stick the coffee in it and a pig will think it slush!” An indignant Caswell branded Boyd’s johnnycakes as “Newport County hick feed.” — Raichlen, Steven.Johnnycake We Hardly Know Ye. Los Angeles Times. 10 October 1991. [Ed: South County is a local name for Washington County, Rhode Island.]
“Society promoting Jonneycakes: PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A group in Rhode Island hopes to make the consumption of Jonnycakes as popular by the 1976 Bicentennial Year as it was when Indians roamed the hills and valleys of Rhode Island. Mrs. James D. Herbert of Providence, chairman of the Society for the Propagation of the Jonnycake Tradition in Rhode Island, says the organization was formed in 1972 to promote the tradition throughout the state.
She said the organization has been successful, but new efforts are underway this year so that more people will grow Indian whitecap corn and acquire the skill of making jonnycakes. Mrs. Herbert said jonnycake is Rhode Island’s native dish.
Kenyon’s Grist Mill in Usquepaug, R.I., is the largest commercial producer of the stone-ground white corn meal in the country. Paul E. T. Drumm Jr., a native Rhode Islander who learned the art of grinding corn while a boy in Portsmouth, is the owner-operator of Kenyon’s Corn Meal company. The most popular spelling of the traditional Rhode Island dish is jonnycake, but the Kenyon Co. product is spelled johnnycake. Drumm said the kind of corn used and the method of grinding it is important, not how the finished product is spelled. In Vermont, he said, they have a dish called johnnycake, but that is “just plain cornbread.” He said in Vermont they use yellow corn and don’t grind it with Narragansett granite, only found in the southern part of Rhode Island.
THE KENYON Corn Meal company has two sets of Narragansett granite stones which, Drumm said, have the capacity of grinding out six tons of corn meal daily. He said most of the johnnycake meal is sold “right here in Rhode Island,” but that he gets orders from all over the world from displaced Rhode Islanders. Due to a shortage of white flint corn, the traditional proper corn for johnnycake meal, he said, Kenyon’s mixes flint and dent corn, a similar but softer variety. “Kenyon’s at present is some flint, mostly dent,” Drumm said. He said Kenyon’s was electrified several years ago because the water level in the mill pond could not be depended on to turn the large granite stones.
Caprener’s Grist Mill in South Kingstown, thought to be the oldest in the country, is still grinding out johnnycake meal. The huge grooved granite stones that grind it probably have been replaced a time or two in the mill’s 256 years. Some corn meal for johnnycakes is also being ground in Jamestown and Little Compton, but one of the most popular tourist attractions in Rhode Island is Prescott Farms in Portsmouth. Prescott Farms began grinding corn several years ago after tobacco heiress Doris Duke renovated the place and put the windmill back into operation. Mrs. Herbert said one of the projects of the society is to appeal to younger people who are interested in natural foods. “There is nothing added to corn meal ground in Rhode Island,” she said.” — Lowell Sun. Lowell, Massachusetts. 3 July 1973. Page 5.
“They’re so fundamental, they’re a fundamental food,” said Dick Donnelly, a North Kingstown resident who’s been cooking jonnycakes since he was 6 years old. “You make them the way you like them,” the 71-year old Donnelly added. “You do with them what you want, and develop your own recipe. But don’t cook them on cast aluminum (griddles). They stick.”…….
……. Local cookbook author Barbara Sherman Stetson of Scituate says all anyone needs to know to cook johnnycakes is how to boil water. Even so, she adds, “most people make God-awful jonnycakes.” First, scald the cornmeal, she says as she pours the steaming water in and beats the contents into a tan, doughy paste. Then, add some sugar, a little milk and carefully shake spoonfuls of the batter onto a griddle greased with corn oil — or bacon fat, which many locals would swear by. Within minutes, they’re ready.
It’s a typical jonnycake, she says, using a recipe passed down through 11 generations of a family that she claims is descended from Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s founder. “It’s strictly a Rhode Island style,” she says, as the rounded cakes are served up this day with scrambled eggs and creamed chipped beef. Others “cook it like grits. They slice it, bake it, whatever,” Stetson says. “It’s more like cornbread. But they call it a jonnycake.”
Besides fending off outsiders’ claims to their invention, Rhode Islanders also have been feuding over which region makes the best jonnycake. Stetson, whose recipes are in “It’s Rhode Island: A Cookbook,” says her variation comes from South County. This is not a county really, but the southern section of the state where the original strain of the jonnycake grain, the white cap flint corn, was grown. The other type, from Newport County, is thinner, almost like a crepe, because residents there use cold milk, rather than boiling water, in the batter. “I just don’t like them at all,” Stetson said, of Newport County’s brand.
What residents in both regions agree upon is that the jonnycake tradition is fading. People like Donnelly and Stetson grew up watching their parents make them, and went on from there. But few are carrying the tradition forward. That was apparent even in the early 1970s, when the “The Society for the Propagation of the Rhode Island Jonnycake Tradition” was first formed. At its peak, the club had about 100 members. But these days, like its namesake, it’s but a shadow of itself. It was 1982 when a member last signed up, and Donnelly, a board member, says the group doesn’t meet regularly because the few remaining members have trouble getting around nowadays.” -– Lewis, Richard G. The johnnycake is historic Rhode Island staple. Alton, Illinois: Alton Telegraph. 30 June 2004.
Some people guess that Johnnycake was originally called “journey cake”, as it could be baked on stones around campfires. Some say it comes from the words “Shawnee cakes.” Some say it comes from the Algonquin word for corn cakes, which was “joniken.”
“Johnny cake” was used as early as 1739 (in South Carolina.)
Aka Jonnycake (no “h”), Ashcake (because they could be baked on stones, heated by the ashes of a fire), hoecake (because they could be cooked on the heated blade of a hoe.) It was being called “hoecake” by 1745.
Brandt, Linda. All about johnnycakes. The Herald Tribune. 27 January 2010.
Daley, Barbara Currie. Johnnycake: Rescuing a Lost Recipe from the Ashes. Caymen Net News. 31 March 2007. Retrieved August 2010 from http://www.caymannetnews.com/cgi-script/csArticles/articles/000132/013294.htm
Fussell, Betty Harper. The story of corn. UNM Press, 2004. Page 222 – 224.
Krauzyk, Henry. Jonnycakes (Rhode Island cornmeal pancakes). 16 October 2009. Retrieved August 2010 from http://www.choponionsboilwater.com/