Evolution of a Dish
By: Katherine Perry
There is a special difficulty in writing on a topic where even the name of the topic is up for debate. Johnny-cakes, the ones I grew up with, were simple: fluffy, cornbready pancakes. And if that’s what you know about Johnny-cakes, and you want them to remain that way, stop reading and relax–take a midday nap, pour a chamomile bath, work on that birdhouse. Nothing to see here.
But, if you really want to know, Massachusetts Johnny-cakes, Rhode Island Jonny-cakes, and all its other forms–Journey-cakes, Hoe-cakes, Nocakes, just to name a few — are a complicated, contentious and thorny business, and this blog post will not satisfy those who want to really get their hands mealy. For that, I’ll direct you to sources who have studied the issue at the length, and with the vigor, such a deep cake deserves. But, here’s a taste at least; for neutrality and simplicity’s sake, as I begin, I’m going to refer to them as J-cakes.
Most agree that whichever J-cake you champion today, they were probably originally known as Journey-cakes, though even this seemingly self-explanatory name comes with ambiguity: Presumably these cakes were not picking up their bindles and heading out on their own. So, whose journey were the cakes going on?
In the New England Heritage Cookbook (1972) Jean Hewitt states “Rhode Island johnnycakes [sic] or Massachusetts johnnycakes were originally called journey cakes because the circuit riders carried the bread with them on their travels to preach the gospel. Massachusetts johnnycakes usually have wheat flour and corn meal in them.” Only this last sentence is (relatively) immune from controversy.
In Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald’s “America’s Founding Food”, they provide a comprehensive J-cakeposit that European settlers arriving in the New World learned to cook these cakes from Native Americans who carried corn meal “Nocake” on their travels. They also note that these cakes are similar to another traveling food the settlers would have been familiar with, though a continent and a grain away: Scottish oat cakes. But whichever traveler they were meant to sustain became moot when the cakes were given a proper Christian name.
In 1915, Thomas Robinson Hazard wrote a memoir of his life in Rhode Island called the “Jonny-cake Papers”. The name is not a just quaint and quirky lead-in; flip to any of the book’s 429 pages and you are likely to land on a Jonny-cake reverie (though you’ll get your fill of huckleberries and history as well). Hazard makes many claims about Jonny-cakes in those hundreds of pages, only some of which I will pass along here. Jonny-cakes were renamed after the Revolutionary War in honor of Connecticut Gov. Jonathon Trumbull, favorite of George Washington . And while the rest of the nation felt just fine about changing this to the common diminutive “Johnny”, Rhode Islanders appeared to fear that the world at large might think they had named their cake after John Bull–Britain’s version of Uncle Sam, and insisted the tyrant “h” could not be brooked.
Rhode Island’s h-less cake recipe differed, at different points and to differing degrees in material ways as well. And, as I’ve said tracing the recipe evolution of the J-cake to the present is suited more for a Darwin-level scholars than this dining history dilettante. I will cut to what I believe is the chase: a Rhode Island Jonny-cake was a simple, white corn meal griddle cake, cooked in grease, outside of Rhode Island, the batter for Johnny-cakes (with an h) were often more akin to what we think of today as cornbread, and was either baked as a cake or fried pancake-style. I tried out one of the three recipes for “Corn Bread or Johnny Cake” from Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking 1890. Mary Hinman Abel offers Plain, Richer, and Very Nice.
Plain sounded a bit like a punishment, but then, it’s not Christmas either. So Richer it was:
We just couldn’t accept these weren’t pancakes, and had to syrup them. It was Very Nice, after all.
Today’s most common J-cake is in some ways a compromise: the griddle-cooking style of the Jonny-cake has become the norm, but spelling is usually the treasonous Johnny-cake. But for Rhode Island Johnnycake traditionalists today, it’s not the name but the content of the cake that is non-negotiable, and it’s essentially the same as it was more than 200 years ago.
Persey’s Place has nine locations from Southeastern Mass to Rhode Island, stretching from Johnny-cake country to historic Jonny-cake land. I stopped by the Kingston location
(full disclosure: in high school, my first, and to this day, my favorite, industry job was bussing tables here).
Head chef Andy Heston says, “We serve Johnny Cakes like a pancake, fluffy and sweet. We are known for our cornbread, so why not incorporate that into a pancake?”
A couple of years ago they switched to a traditional Rhode Island style made with a mix from Rhode Island’s famous Kenyon’s Grist Mill. Most diners were perplexed and, according to Heston, very angry. So, they switched back–except at their Dartmouth location, where the Rhode Island style apparently appealed to their Southern New England palates. Luckily, there really isn’t any reason that you have to choose–just set and extra place and have all the Johnnies over for breakfast.
Persey’s Place “Traditional Rhode Island Johnny-Cake”
- Rhode Island Johnny mix from Kenyon’s Corn meal (White Cornmea,l Salt, Sugar, Milk Whey)
- Add boiling water or milk and stir, letting the liquid absorb into the cornmeal.
- On a very hot griddle put a generous amount of melted butter or oil and drop Johnny mix by the Tablespoon and cook for around 9 minutes on first side then flip and cook until crispy.
They are usually eaten with just butter no Maple Syrup.
Persey’s Place “Pancake style”
- A mix of Wheat, Malted Barley, and Corn Flours
- Ground yellow Cornmeal
- Baking soda and baking powder
- Mix and cook as pancakes
Corn Bread, or Johnny Cake. Practical Sanitary and Economic Cooking 1890. By Mrs. Mary Hinman Abel.
1 cup sweet milk, 1 cup sour or buttermilk, or both of sour milk, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon soda, 1 tablespoon butter or suet or lard, 3 cups Indian meal, and 1 of wheat flour, or all of Indian meal. Pour into a tin and bake 40 minutes.
The same with an egg and 1/2 cup sugar added.
3. Very Nice.
No. 1, with the addition of 3 eggs, 1/2 cup sugar and 1/3 cup butter, 1 cup meal being omitted.
Katherine Perry is a radio reporter based at WATD-FM in Marshfield. Before she entered journalism, Katherine worked just about every food industry job: from selling specialty spices, to line cook, to cheesemonger. Since setting down the spatula and taking up the microphone, she’s found that when she’s got a choice about what to cover, she invariably chooses the edible topic. Right now, she’s absorbed in New England culinary history and is delving into the area’s delicious past.