The Rhode Island Johnnycake Experts Speak | How America Eats

This is the last of the stories from New England–and it’s a good one!

Sometime later in the week we’ll start wandering around the Middle Atlantic States with Clementine Paddleford, who for 12 years collected recipes and stories for her classic old cookbook, How America Eats (1960). For now, enjoy Clementine’s tale of the johnnycake.

From The Newport Daily News, September 1, 1959

Scroll all the way down to see a piece of everyday history I stumbled upon. A potato BOYCOTT. And come back tomorrow! Don’t BOYCOTT this site.


Providence, Rhode Island

Go on to Providence, Rhode Island, to learn about johnnycake. Its making is one of the little state’s most treasured arts, and an ancient art carried down the years to now.

Corn and corn meal were important staples in colonial trade and the early New England settlers took quick advantage of the numerous streams with their short, sharp falls to set up gristmills. At the same time the women newly arrived from the Old World were quick to im­prove upon Indian cooking. From the Indian corn they created dozens of palatable dishes. They developed the hominy of the South, the cornmeal mush of Pennsylvania, the hasty pudding of New Haven, Connecticut, the Indian pudding and brown bread of Boston, and the whitepot of poor man’s custard of Newport, Rhode Island.

But the johnnycake of Rhode Island’s south county has achieved more than local fame as a breakfast bread. In the colonial days in the old Narragansett County in Rhode Island where the gentry in their great houses, with their fine colored cooks and big fireplaces, lived luxuriously and leisurely, johnnycake was made daily. This was a halfway between Roger Williams with his “spoon full of meal and spoon full of water from the brook” and the present day of our “minute” made dishes.

Georgia W. Gardiner of Providence told me that in old times the ingredients included meal made from Rhode Island’s white corn. No other kind would do. This corn was ground between stones of Narragansett marble, ground exceedingly fine. The meal had no harsh feeling of round, gritty granules. It was soft as the finest talcum powder. Many times the miller would run the meal through his fingers and adjust the stones until the product was perfect.

The element of time entered into the meal making. A hurried grinding produced hot meal with much of the life taken out. Slow grinding kept the meal cool and retained all of its vital statistics. Rhode Islanders care so much about this type of meal that there are still grist mills turning out stone ground johnnycake meal and several brands of this product are on the market.

Mr. Gardiner takes his johnnycake with ham and eggs, with broiled bluefish, shad roe, steaks or chops. He names a long list, then added, “a well-buttered, golden brown, flaky crusted, soft-hearted Rhode Island johnny­cake right hot off the griddle is the crowning glory of breakfast, lunch or dinner.” He ap­proves it even as a solo dish with butter and a big pour of maple syrup.

One of the great traditions of the state is the johnnycake eating contests held at Cole’s Hotel in Warren. Queer thing is that few Rhode Island cooks ever agree on how to make this food of the gods. A native Rhode Islander, Mrs. E.T. G. Metcalf, a few years back gave a johnnycake luncheon for me at her lovely old home on Williams Street, Provi­dence, a house she fondly refers to as “farm­house” Colonial. Mrs. Metcalf, a native of Rhode Island, had invited four johnnycake experts to give me the particulars regarding the honest-to-goodness way of this Rhode Is­land delicacy.

Talk went great guns; yet the five women at the table never did agree on one authentic method of johnnycake baking. They couldn’t even agree on the spelling of the name. Likely the “H” doesn’t belong. Originally the small oval com cakes were journey cakes because travelers carried them in their saddlebags for refreshment along the way. Years of usage turned journey cake into jonnycake. No con­nection with the name John, but the diction­aries persist in the johnnycake spelling.

Disagreement again over the best com for the meal; does it grow in Newport or in Wash­ington County? Each guest at the luncheon gave me the name of the meal she prefers, five different meals! Five different millers.

Meet the guests: Mrs. Henry D. Sharpe, of Prospect Street, not a real Rhode Islander–she was born in Syracuse, New York­ but she has lived in Providence 30 years.

Everyone listened politely to her way of scalding johnnycake meal in a double boiler, then to stand 20 minutes.

Next at the table, Mrs Charles C. Marshall, of Prospect Street. Her way is to scald the meal, then add cold milk to bring it to the right consistency. “Cold milk! Oh no, it’s hot milk,” someone put in “With hot milk, there is much less stickiness.”

Mrs. Gordon Washburn, wife of the former Director of the Providence Museum of Art, admitted she mixed the meal with milk and didn’t bother to scald and that the cakes tasted all right.

Fifth guest: Violet B. Higbee, extension specialist in foods at the Rhode Island State College at Kingston, said that some women she knew put the cakes in the oven for a few minutes after the frying. Other women, she said, fry one side, then turn, then put the whole griddle into the oven to finish the baking.

Mrs. Metcalf was critical of the johnnycake she passed at her luncheon. I took a third help­ing and my hostess raised an eyebrow. “These cakes,” she said, “didn’t tum out right.” A johnnycake, she explained, should be a glossy brown, thick crusted with a creamy soft center.

Reinforcements of hot cakes came from the kitchen. Nobody, I noticed, held back with the fork because of a lack in the gloss. Here we tread on dangerous ground but right or wrong we choose the Metcalf recipe to add to our regional files. Who can say it isn’t the best? We are told that when the Rhode Island Fed­eration of Women’s Clubs held a contest to determine just what should go into the state’s finest johnnycake, over 1,000 recipes were submitted, no two alike.


Substitute Johnnycakes

From The Newport Mercury, Friday May 30, 1952.