March 30, 2020

Johnnycake Recipes

Johnnycakes, a kind of cornmeal pancake, have been a Rhode Island staple since pre-Colonial times...

First edition 1953 dust jacket of "The Wizard of Bristol"

In “The Wizard of Bristol,” L. Francis sets the scene for his history of HMCo. by describing Rhode Island in the early chapters. His description of Aquidneck Island includes a tribute to the local delicacy so loved by the Herreshoff brothers, the humble johnnycake, essentially a pancake made out of cornmeal:

“Off to the south lies the island of [Aquidneck] only separated from Bristol by a sheet of water half a mile wide. In former times there were several windmills on the island of Rhode Island and from Bristol they gave the scene a rather foreign aspect, but to a lover of Rhode Island johnnycakes the slowly revolving sails of these mills brought pleasant thoughts for the mills were grinding meal from Rhode Island white cap and Rhode Island golden cap corn. And if there is anything better than that for a steady diet this writer has never tasted it, for it can be consumed with pleasure in one form or another three times a day for three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. Johnnycakes, corn bread, brown bread, Indian pudding, scallops rolled in corn meal and fried in bacon fat in a skillet --- yes, bless the Narragansett Indians who gave us this corn. It might be interesting to note here that our Mr. Herreshoff ate these johnnycakes seven eighths of the mornings of his life. I suppose I should apologize to the patient reader, but he would readily excuse me if he had been brought up in sight of those windmills...

Prescott Farm windmill in Middletown, RI via wikimedia commons / Swampyank

Historically, grist mills - mills used to grind grains like wheat or corn into flour - were either water or wind powered. The smock type windmills of Rhode Island had caps that rotated so the sails could be pointed into the wind. Today we still have several historic windmill sites in Rhode Island, and one grist mill that has operated on the same site since the 1690s! You can see all the grinding steps in this video from George Washington's water powered grist mill, which still operates at Mount Vernon:

Johnnycakes - or some version of them - have been made since before Colonial times in New England, and are called by different names outside of New England. In Rhode Island, there are two distinct styles, the thin-and-crispy Newport style, and then the smaller, puffier South County style. We're guessing N.G.H. would have eaten the Newport style cakes, but try both for yourselves and see which you prefer! Butter, molasses, syrup, and jam on top are optional:

Newport Style Johnnycakes

Ingredients (yields 12 johnnycakes)

  • 1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 3/4 cups cold milk
  • butter for frying
  1. Mix cornmeal, sugar, salt and milk; batter will be very wet
  2. Heat frying pan, add butter, 1 tablespoon at a time
  3. Pour mixture to make five-inch-diameter cakes. Note: the cornmeal will sink in the bowl, so re-mix before every pour!
  4. Fry two to three minutes on each side, or until dark golden color.

South County Johnnycakes

Ingredients (yields 10 johnnycakes)

  • 1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon sugar or molasses (optional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • butter for frying
  1. Mix salt and cornmeal
  2. Slowly pour enough boiling water over cornmeal to make a thick batter, mixing with a fork to break lumps
  3. Add molasses/sugar if desired
  4. Spoon enough batter onto a well-greased medium-hot skillet to make a puffy 3-inch-diameter cake
  5. Cook six minutes on one side, then four to five on the other (adding more butter to pan between flips if desired), until golden brown

Recipes courtesy Kenyon's Grist Mill