Hoecakes and johnnycakes are like bouillabaisse: "the only thing their partisans agree on is that everyone else gets them wrong", writes Jon Fasman ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Autumn 2008
"Pray let me, an American, inform the gentleman, who seems ignorant of the matter... that johny or hoecake, hot from the fire, is better than a Yorkshire muffin" ~ Benjamin Franklin, letter to the Gazetteer (1766)
Hoecakes and johnny--or johny--cakes belong to the same class of food as bouillabaisse and ragù Bolognese: the only thing their partisans agree on is that everyone else gets them wrong. They are similar, if not exactly the same: unleavened cakes made from cornmeal, water and some sort of binding fat--usually lard. Salt or sugar is added at the cook's peril: though they give these rough cakes what little savour they have, traditionalists consider them far too fancy.
Both have New England roots, but they differ in density. Hoecakes are made from a stiff dough, johnnycakes from batter. This is to do with the method of cooking: hoecakes, as the name suggests, are baked in rough loaves on a hoe that is thrust into a fire, while johnnycakes are fried on a cast-iron griddle on a stove.
There are three theories to choose from on the origins of the name johnnycake. One claims it comes from "Shawnee cake", after the Native American tribe of the northern Midwest, another that it is a corruption of "journey cake" (in a Rhode Island accent, "johnny" and "journey" are practically identical), and a rather prosaic third that it comes from "jannock", an old English word for oat bread.
For obscure reasons, johnnycakes remain an integral part of the cuisine of Rhode Island--a state whose many unique culinary treasures belie its small size. Jigger's Diner, in East Greenwich, makes the best in the state. Served hot, usually for breakfast, with butter and maple syrup, they are preferable to toast or pancakes--and far, far better than a Yorkshire muffin.
Picture credit: blair christensen (via Flickr)
(Jon Fasman is an editor for Economist.com, and the author of two novels, both published by the Penguin Press: "The Geographer's Library" and "The Unpossessed City", published this November. His last "Repast" was about calves-foot jelly.)