History of johnnycakes

The johnnycake goes by many names: johnny cake, jonnycake, journey cake, hoe-cake, and all versions of spacing and hyphenation of these imaginable. It is essentially a cornmeal flatbread or fritter fried in oil, or sometimes baked in an oven. Southerners and pioneers may call them hoe-cakes, as the cakes were cooked on a garden hoe heated in a fire. There are also records of a kind of pan called a hoe. My best understanding is that it is something like an inverse skillet with no sides, or a smooth round griddle.

Johnnycakes were likely adapted from Native American recipes and techniques. Pilgrims may have been taught to make them, or a variant of them, from the Pawtuxet Indians, who also taught them to grow corn, dry it, and grind it into cornmeal. According to some sources, the name johnnycake could be derived from Shawnee-cake, named for the Shawnee Indians that may have taught European settlers how to make them. Other theories have it named for “nokechick,” the Narragansett Indian word for “corncake” or “janiken” another native term for corncake. It’s also possible the name is a derivative of “journey-cakes” as the batter was often made ahead of time and packed to be cooked during long voyages. Or everyone on the internet is all copying from one unreliable source and this is all bunk.

Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), Shane (Alan Ladd), and Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur) in  Shane  (1953).

Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), Shane (Alan Ladd), and Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur) in Shane (1953).

According to The New England Yankee Cookbook* (1939) “A true Rhode Islander would not dream of using an ‘h’ in jonnycake. ‘Shepherd Tom’…in his famous book The Jonny Cake has settled this point once and for all, especially for those from South County.” What a relief. This also gives us a number of New England johnnycake-related anecdotes and recipe variants: 

Rhode Island Jonnycake: 1 cup Rhode Island white jonnycake cornmeal, not bolted (waterground if you can get it), 1 teaspoon salt, 1 cup boiling water, ½ cup milk. Add salt to cornmeal; scald with boiling water until every grain swells; add milk very gradually until batter is a little thicker than ordinary pancake batter. Bake on slightly greased skillet, allowing more time than for frying griddle cakes. Let cakes cook thoroughly on one side before turning. Turn so the cakes are golden brown on both sides. Makes 16 small cakes.

It is said of Rhode Island jonnycakes that they were served as a matter of course for breakfast; midday dinner was considered incomplete without them, and if a wife wished to give her husband a special treat for supper she served jonnycakes. This still holds true in some of the older Rhode Island villages today, notably Wickford.

Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) at his dinner table in  Shane  (1953). Bottom left, a vase of green onions.

Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) at his dinner table in Shane (1953). Bottom left, a vase of green onions.

New Bedford Johnnycakes: Follow recipe for Rhode Island Jonnycakes adding 2 tablespoons flour and 1 tablespoon sugar to the cornmeal.

Johnnycakes were originally called Journey Cakes. As the Pilgrim Fathers traveled from the Plymouth Colony to their garrison post at Russell’s Mills, Dartmouth, Mass., they stopped on a hill in what is now New Bedford and ate the journey cakes they had brought with them. In time the hill became known as Johnnycake Hill. Today the Bourne Whaling Museum and Seaman’s Bethel, containing the relics of New Bedford, are located on this hill, just above the Acushnet River. This historical note and the recipe for New Bedford johnnycake comes from Mrs. Herbert A. Manchester, Jenny Lind Street, New Bedford, Mass.

Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur). Bottom right... these sodbusters love green onions.

Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur). Bottom right... these sodbusters love green onions.

In Chelsea, Vermont, there was once a street called Johnnycake Lane. In the days when wheat began to take the place of cornmeal in the baking of bread, many people still held to corn, A peddler came into Chelsea at the noon hour and went down a certain street. The midday meal was in progress, Later, in the tavern, the peddler remarked that every family on the street had johnnycake for dinner­—“Why, it’s a regular Johnnycake Lane,” he said. The Street remained Johnnycake Lane for a century.”

Fried Indian Cakes (also called Cornmeal Slappers): 2 cups cornmeal, ½ teaspoon soda, ½ teaspoon salt, 2 ½ cups boiling water. Mix cornmeal, soda and salt quickly with boiling water until just stiff enough to form into inch-thick cakes with the hands. Fry in skillet in hot fat, deep enough to cover about halfway up around cakes, turning so that both sides become golden brown. Serve hot with butter and maple syrup and bacon.  This recipe has been in the all-Yankee family of Mrs. E.C. Alward, 450 Summer Ave., Reading, Mass., since long before she was born.

From New England, Johnnycakes traveled south and west with pioneers, homesteaders and settlers.

The Great Western Cookbook: or Table Receipts Adapted to Western Housewifery [sic] by Mrs. A.M. Collins, published in 1857 by A.S. Barnes and Company gives us this: “To a quart of sweet corn-meal, add a pint of warm water and a tea-spoonful of salt; beat it up very hard; spread it evenly and smoothly on the board. Place the board before a clear, moderate fire; when done, cut it in squares, and send it to the table without buttering it.”

In the west, they became a campfire staple of Civil War soldier, ranch-hands, cowboys, and slaves. Variations of them are recorded in Oregon Trail and other westward-bound pioneer journals, and, as they had for generations of New Englanders, they became regular family homestead tablefare.

Our johnnycakes have been made with fresh corn and some sweet onion for a savory snack, and a sauce that is something of a variation of a cuban aji verde.

Fresh Corn and Sweet Onion Johnnycakes with Creamy Avocado and Green Onion Sauce

Creamy Avocado and Green Onion Sauce

  • 1 bunch green onions, about 7 or 8, bottom ½ inch removed, coarsely chopped
  • ½ bunch cilantro, stems removed
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed or 2 plus some seeds for more spice (we used one pepper, but it was HUGE)
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • juice of 1 lime
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 ripe avocado

Put green onions, cilantro, jalapeno, and half of citrus juices in food processor or blender until finely chopped. Add mayonnaise and avocado. Pulse until creamy. Taste. Add remaining citrus and salt to taste. We used about ¾ of all citrus. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Fresh Corn and Sweet Onion Johnnycakes

Adapted from recipe by David Lebovitz, who also credits Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook.

  • 1 ½ cups corn kernels (from 2 ears of corn, roasted or grilled, or frozen)
  • ½ cup finely chopped sweet onion
  • 5 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature (plus more for cooking, if needed)
  • 1 ½ cups corn flour (if unavailable, use cornmeal that’s been further processed in a blender)
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon chile powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 2 large eggs, separated, room temperature
  • 1 large egg white, room temperature

1. Cook your corn. Allow to cool. Strip kernels from cob with a sharp knife.

Roasted: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place ears of corn still in husks, directly on center rack. Cook for 30 minutes or until corn is soft.

Grilled: Alternatively, toss ears still in husks on a grill on high heat, turning occasionally, until husks are completely charred on all sides, about 20 minutes.

Microwave: I don't know. Look it up.

Frozen: Alteralternatively, use 1 ½ cups thawed frozen corn.

2. Saute onion with 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, until opaque.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together corn flour, baking powder, chile powder, and salt.

Whisk together corn flour, baking powder, chile powder, and salt.

Whisk together corn flour, baking powder, chile powder, and salt.

4. In a small saucepan, heat milk, remaining 4 tablespoons butter and honey until butter is melted. Set aside to cool until tepid.

5. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients. Stir in the milk and melted butter mixture and the two egg yolks.

6. In a clean, dry bowl, beat together the three egg whites until they are stiff and hold their shape. Fold into corn mixture.

Drys whisked with milk, butter, and egg yolks. Egg whites at soft peaks, ready for folding.

Drys whisked with milk, butter, and egg yolks. Egg whites at soft peaks, ready for folding.

7. Heat more butter in a large, preferably cast iron skillet. When hot, drop large tablespoons of mixture into skillet, about ¼ cup at a time. I do this in two batches, cooking only four at a time. Flatten and shape batter with the back of a spoon or a spatula.

Completed johnnycake batter just dropped in. That bubbling butter along the edges is perfect temperature. A bit more smoothing and flattening is needed.

Completed johnnycake batter just dropped in. That bubbling butter along the edges is perfect temperature. A bit more smoothing and flattening is needed.

8. Allow Johnnycakes to cook until browned on the bottom and starting to bubble around the edges, then gently flip. Continue cooking for about another minute, until second side is browned.

9. Transfer to serving plate and keep warm under foil while you cook the second pan full.

Serve warm with Avocado and Green Onion Sauce

* “An Anthology of INCOMPARABLE RECIPES FROM THE SIX NEW ENGLAND STATES and a Little Something about the People whose Tradition for Good Eating is herein permanently recorded BY IMOGENE WOLCOTT from the Files of YANKEE magazine and from Timeworn Recipe Books and many Gracious Contributors.”