Friday, October 16, 2009

Recipe: Jonnycakes (Rhode Island cornmeal pancakes)

Here in Southeastern New England you just can't get more down-home-swamp-yankee-soul-food than jonnycakes. Their history is long and finds its root in the pre-European-invasion food traditions of the local Wampanoag and Narragansett Indian tribes. Corn cakes were a tribal staple and the Native Americans generously shared their corn, its farming methods and its preparation with early settlers. In the case of Plimouth Plantation, jonnycakes (or something very similar) were in-part, the difference between the life and death of the colony. A error on the tribes' part which the intolerant Pilgrims soon made them regret. The negative aspects of American history aside, the early settlers took a serious liking to jonnycakes and they became synonymous with Southeastern New England farm life and are still available today. Which is something, because the ingredients while simple, take a little effort to produce.

Genuine jonnycakes are made from stone ground white cap flint corn. It's the same variety of corn that was favored by the local Wampanoag and Narragansett Indian tribes before the arrival of the Europeans. Still grown by local farmers, white cap flint corn (or Narragansett Indian Flint Corn) must be grown in areas isolated from other corn crops to avoid hybridization. It is also a low yield crop with stalks producing one to two ears of corn with each ear having only eight rows of kernels. The corn once harvested takes approximately eight months to dry enough to get to the point where it can be milled. Which takes us to the next step.

Genuine jonnycake meal has to be stone ground between granite millstones. This slow and traditional method not only produces a superior meal, but the one-pass method used in grinding the flint corn also allows a higher nutritional value in the resulting meal. Several historic mills currently produce the stone ground flour required to make jonnycakes. Among them are: Gray's Grist Mill in Adamsville, Rhode Island which is the oldest dating back prior to 1700, Carpenter's Grist Mill in Perryville, RI, dating to 1703 and Kenyon's Grist Mill in Usquepaugh, RI, dating to 1886. Their products are available in a few local markets. Both Gray's Grist Mill and Kenyon's Grist Mill offer their products online. Each mill claims their product to be the genuine item and all other products are inferior, but a lot of things with jonnycakes are like that.

Like all things much loved by passionate adherents, there is much dispute over jonnycakes. Points of view tend to form regarding where you live, what mill you get your flour from and who your ancestors are. There are several variants of the jonnycake that are defined by where one lives on Narragansett Bay. Mills aside, each variation has its faithful proponents whom will profess their favorite's advantages above all others. At the time of this writing I am aware of three general regional variations (also: subtle variations of each recipe can be found within its region):

East Narragansett Bay Jonnycakes which are small and thin with lacy and crispy edges and use only milk.

Mid-Narragansett Bay Jonnycakes which are medium-sized and on the thick side. These seem to be the newest variant.

West Narragansett Bay Jonnycakes which are large, thick and soft and made with the addition of boiling water.

Even the name "jonnycake" has been disputed in the past. One story I came across tells of a couple of 19th century politicians coming to blows in the Rhode Island State House over the need, or not, of the "h" in the name. Apparently, the fellow who wanted the "h" kept out won, because most places refer to them as "jonnycakes". Even the origin of the name comes into scholarly debate. Some scholars believe the word jonnycake is derived from "joniken" the Algonquin Indian word for corn cakes, while others point to jonnycake being derived from "journey cake" because the corn cakes travelled well. Here you choose the story that most fits in with your personal feelings. I know where mine lie.

While a fan of ALL jonnycakes (and nokake and cornbread), I grew up eating the East Narragansett Bay variety on my grandparent's farm in Tiverton, Rhode Island. My grandmother was a wizard at the stove and indulged me whenever she got a chance to. At the ignorant age of seven I once challenged her that I could eat all the jonnycakes she could make. Testing her love like that was pure folly and in under an hour I was stuffed to the gills with the crispy corn goodness produced in her cast iron skillet. My jonnycake pedigree is deep and can be traced back through Yankee farmers all the way to Native American ancestors. That makes me pretty damn romantic about jonnycakes and puts them high on my list of personal supreme comfort foods.

Jonnycake purists will tell you these have to be cooked on a well-greased cast iron pan or griddle. I can't say that's true because I mostly cook in cast iron anyway. Purists will also tell you that you serve them with sweet butter only. Well, when I ate them at my grandparents that's how I had them and they were GOOD! These days though, with concerns about cholesterol, I don't think it's a sin to use maple syrup or some other heart-friendly topping. You can use jonnycakes anywhere a pancake, biscuit, dumplings, potatoes or corn would be served. Thinking about it now, the next time I make some chili, I'm going to cook up a bunch of jonnycakes. I can't lose.

Behold the famed jonnycake,
easy to cook and quick to make.
Fare of Indian brave and white man
Crisp, golden joy in a cast iron pan.

I've presented three recipes below of the Narragansett Bay variations and one personal recipe. Try what you like and experiment a little. In the words of Richard Donnelly, Rhode Island's own "Jonnycake Man": There is no wrong way to make a jonnycake! I hope you try, and enjoy this simple and historic Southern New England pleasure.

East Narraganset Bay Style Jonnycakes (Courtesy: Gray's Grist Mill)

1 cup stoneground white cornmeal

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar (optional)
1-7/8 cups of milk

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
Let stand a few minutes as mixture will thicken, (Add extra milk if necessary to keep the mixture thin).
Spoon onto on a well-greased, hot griddle or cast iron pan.
Cook, flipping after the edges turn brown so both sides brown evenly.

Mid-Narragansett Bay Style Jonnycakes (Courtesy: Richard Donnelly, Edible Rhody Magazine)

1 cup stoneground white cornmeal
1/8 cup dry milk
1 tsp of sugar
1/8 tsp salt
Pinch of either allspice, or nutmeg or ginger (optional)
1-1/2 to 2 cups boiling water

Place dry ingredients in a bowl.
Add the boiling water slowly and use the back of a spoon to smooth it and keep it from lumping on the spoon.
Drop spoonfuls onto a well-greased, hot griddle or cast iron pan and flip when the edges are brown.

West Narragansett Bay Style Jonnycakes (Courtesy: Kenyon's Grist Mill)

1 cup stoneground white cornmeal
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp Sugar
1-1/4 cups of boiling water

Place all ingredients in bowl and gradually add boiling water.
Let stand a few minutes, as mixture will thicken.
Thin down with boiling water to a consistency that will drop off the end of a spoon.
Drop on a well greased, medium hot griddle by the spoonful, and cook for about 6 minutes each side, until brown.

Henry's East Narragansett Bay Style Jonnycakes

1 cup stoneground white cornmeal

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar
1-1/8 cups of milk

Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.
Let stand a few minutes as mixture will thicken, (Add extra milk if necessary to keep the mixture thin).
Spoon onto on a well-greased, hot griddle or cast iron pan.
Cook, flipping after the edges turn brown so both sides brown evenly.


  1. Kenyon's Grist Mill is having a Hravest Festival on October 24 & 25 from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Free Food Samples and a variety of free johnny cakes, free tours of the mill and grinding process, free admission & parking...over 30 vendors, music and more. Visit for photos and details.