New Hampshire Glossary: Johnnycake

Let me make this perfectly clear…  Johnnycake is NOT a contemporary New Hampshire “Glossary” word

But since so many viewers of HBO:The Sopranos THINK it is, I am going to discuss it.

Nowadays in New Hampshire, we make PANCAKES, period.  During colonial times, New Hampshire settlers, along with most of New England, had learned about corn from the indigenous peoples and used cornmeal in their every day diets.

Once the corn was ground to meal, the question was what to do with it. For wheat eaters, corn was a punishment…In frontier America, as in colonial America, any form of bread made with corn instead of wheat was a sad paste of despair. How sad is reflected in the lowliness of the names–pone, ashcakes, hoe-cakes, journey-cakes, johnny-cakes, slapjacks, spoonbreads, dodgers–all improvised in the scramble to translate one culture’s tongue and palate into another’s. Names got muddled by region and recipe as much as samp, hominy and grits and for the same reason: the desperate attempt of a wheat culture to order by its own canon the enormous variety of pastes, batters and doughs cooked by native grinders of corn.

The earliest recipe that I find for Johny cake, or Hoe Cake is in American Cookery (1796) by Amelia Simmons. It calls for Indian meal, as do all New England recipes, and is baked before the fire, presumably spread on a propped up hoe, plank, or stone…as the colonists had been doing all along. It must be understood that among the scores of johnny cakes, pones, ash cakes, hoe cakes, bannocks, and even various fried cakes, differentiation was not rigorous. Each colony, each community, had its own versions and names, a tradition that faded as the iron kitchen range made all hearth cakes virtually obsolete…” —The Virginia House-wife, Mary Randolph [1824], historical notes and commentaries by Karen Hess [University of South Carolina Press:Columbia] 1984 [the quoted passage is from Ms. Hess] Here we read that it was first dubbed jonne-cake, or journey-cake, because it was an excellent article with which to fill the traveler’s knapsack. In the south it is called ashcake, batter bread, battercake, corn cake, cornpone or hoecake.

Johnnycake is traditionally a Rhode Island foodstuff. I’ve also read that Rhode Island maintains a Society for the Propagation of Johnny Cakes.  I’m not sure if this is a joke or not, as I cannot find more about this Society.

There are those who will argue that the book, “Two Years Before the Mast,” published  in 1841, as the diary of a sailor, is proof that johnnycakes were common in Maine at that time. This novel mentions a Maine-born sea captain, Francis Thompson, whose ship the Pilgrim set sail from Boston Harbor, and who mentions johnnycake when speaking with his crew. Considering that both the book author’s mother and grandmother were from Rhode Island, and that the sea captain’s parentage has not been clearly determined, it is impossible to judge from this single reference, exactly where the term “johnnycake” originated, or if it was commonly cooked in Maine during this time frame. It is entirely possible that the author of the book embellished on the original scenario, adding the johnnycake reference.

Richard Henry Dana, the author was a Massachusetts native, whose mother, Ruth Charlotte (Smith) Dana, and paternal grandmother, Elizabeth (Ellery) Dana were both born in Rhode Island, and no doubt cooked “johnnycakes” that originated in their native state.

Prior to the airing of the “Live Free or Die” episode on HBO: The Sopranos, Johnnycake was an extremely RARE item on New Hampshire menus.  However, that may change.  As our state’s official tourist season starts in a week, I have no doubt that at least a few travelers will seek out local diners who serve that gritty foodstuff. Thusly Johnnycakes will become part of Vito’s self-fulfilling prophecy.


NOTE: This recipe would be for a current day Johnnycake.  During colonial days such items as sugar, sweet milk and the all-purpose flour would not be every day items used in cooking, as they were considered rare and expensive.  The sweetening would probably have been honey or more commonly molasses.

New England Johnnycake Recipe
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 eggs well beaten
1/4 cup melted shortening
1 cup sweet milk
1/4 cup white vinegar
1-1/4 cups of yellow cornmeal

Sift flour with baking soda, salt and sugar
Stir in cornmeal
Combine eggs, vinegar, milk and shortening
Add both mixtures together until everything is moist
Pour mixture into a greased 8x8x2 inch baking pan
Bake at 400 degrees F for 30-35 minutes

Let the Johnnycake cool and dig in.


Since the original writing of this story, I located a New Hampshire version of the Johnnycake. From The Farmer’s Cabinet (Amherst NH) Friday November 8, 1861, Vol 60, Issue 15, Page 1-2:

JOHNNY CAKE, OR CORN BREAD.–The following (not before published) we formerly copied from the MS of algood housewife Georgia: Beat two eggs very light, mix with them, alternately, one pint of sour milk, or buttermilk, and one pint of meal. Add one tablespoon of melted butter. Dissolve one tablespoonful of soda in a little of the milk, and add to the mixture. Last, but not least, beat hard together and bake quick.

PLAIN JOHNNY CAKE–Take 1 quart Indian meal, 1 quarter buttermilk, 1 teaspoonful salt, 1 teaspoonful saleratus, 2 tablespoonfuls better or other shortening, 1 tablespoonful sugar, 1 or 2 beaten eggs if you have them. Mix and bake in shallow tin pans 1-2 hours.

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One Response to New Hampshire Glossary: Johnnycake

  1. Ashley says:

    Came across your site whilst searching for Johnnycake Persian cats? very interesting though – will definitely try your recipe!

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