Saturday, February 20, 2010

Johnny Cakes (and The OId Grist Mill Tavern)

I don’t know when, but at some point I acquired this postcard from the The Old Grist Mill Tavern in Seekonk, Massachusetts. It originally belonged to my Aunt Harriet. That much I know.

I have had quite a few meals at the Grist Mill, but never, despite the declaration on the back of the postcard, have I ever had a johnny cake there. “ ‘Home of the Johnny Cake,’ ” it reads in quotation marks as if to imply that any customer might have uttered the phrase upon hearing the words Grist Mill. Yet if you look at the Grist Mill’s present menu, there are no johnny cakes to be found.

So much for the Grist Mill’s claim to fame.

I have no intention of boycotting the Grist Mill for not keeping true to some assertion a former owner made in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when the postcard was probably printed. I don’t even know if the Grist Mill ground corn when it was in operation as an actual grist mill in the eighteenth century.

The card simply reminds me that I don’t see johnny cakes, supposedly a mainstay of New England cooking since the colonial period, too often anymore.

In December I was in Rhode Island and decided to pick up a box of Kenyon’s white corn meal so that I could remind myself of just what a johnny cake tastes like. Now, normally I’m skeptical of buying pre-mixed flours or meals, because I can just purchase corn meal or flour in bulk and save myself a lot of money. I know how to make pancakes, for instance, and it’s not so difficult that I need to buy the ingredients pre-mixed. But, seeing as Rhode Island’s economy is in the toilet, I thought I’d do my part to help out both a Rhode Island grocery store and the folks at Kenyon’s Corn Meal Company in Usquepaugh, R.I.

Since then I’ve been reading up on johnny cakes and, among other things, found that Kenyon’s packaged white corn meal is really stone ground, while most corn meal is made using steel blades. This means that Kenyon’s corn meal is not only more nutritious than others, but that it also has a distinctive taste and finer texture.

It’s a good thing, or so Martha Stewart Living tells me.

Strangely, in Rhode Island, by law it should be spelled jonny cakes, not johnny cakes. (So, in a state where native speakers add an h to the end of any word ending in r, you’re supposed to drop the h in the middle of this one particular word. Up to speed?) In that respect, opening a box of Kenyon’s corn meal for johnny cakes could be considered a revolutionary act.
Someone might want to alert the Rhode Island Tea Party about this.

I recently made johnny cakes for breakfast, following the recipe on the box of Kenyon’s corn meal. Judging from the company's website, the cakes I made were in South County style, as opposed to Newport style, which requires milk rather than boiled water. You can make them any way you like. Mine came out about a quarter of an inch thick, crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. We had them with eggs and a bit of maple syrup. They were quite good. I plan to make another batch whenever I get around to cooking some sort of seafood with a cream sauce.

I like a food that works for both breakfast and supper.

Johnny cakes also remind me of a certain passage in Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana’s 1840 account of how he, a Boston Brahmin and Harvard undergraduate, spent two years as a lowly sailor. Dana’s description of the way his brutal "down-east johnny-cake" captain, a Mainer I presume, reacted to the demands of the crew reads as follows:

“Well, what the d---l do you want now?” Whereupon we stated our grievances as respectfully as we could; but he broke in upon us, saying that we were getting fat and lazy, didn’t have enough to do, and it was that which made us find fault. This provoked us, and we began to give word for word. This would never answer. He clenched his fist, stamped and swore, and ordered us all forward, saying, with oaths enough interspersed to send the words home, “Away with you! go forward every one of you! I’ll haze you! I’ll work you up. You don’t have enough to do! If you a’n’t careful, I’ll make a hell of heaven! . . . You’ve mistaken your man! I’m Frank Thompson, all the way from ‘down east.’ I’ve been through the mill, ground, and bolted, and come out a regular-built, down-east johnny-cake, when it’s hot, d----d good; but when it’s cold, d----d sour and indigestible; -- and you’ll find me so!”

It probably goes without saying, but I made sure my Rhode Island johnny cakes were piping hot when we ate them.


  1. Yum! Thanks for the information. I also heard that Kenyon's Grist Mill is holding 3 FREE charitable events at their mill in Usquepaugh, Rhode Island. Free tours, johnny cakes and more! There will be about 40 local business vendors on May 22&23 (Spring Festival), July 24&25 (Summer Festival) & Oct 23&24 (Harvest Festival). I've been to their events last year - They are so much fun!

  2. Next time you're in New York, you'll have to come eat at Buttermilk Channel. The exec chef is from RI & they sometimes have jonnycakes on the menu.

  3. Try Jonny cake mix from Carpenter's Grist Mill in Matunuck, RI on Moonstone Road. Available at a few stores in the area. The BEST!

  4. Thanks. That gives me a reason to go to Matunuck.

  5. I found a recipe for Tomatoe Soup Cake and Gumdrop cake in one of my Grandparents old cookbooks.. In the gumdrop cake recipe it says to use any gumdrop except the black ones..I have never had Gumdrop Cake or Gumdrop Bread which I have a recipe for that one too but I remember having tomatoe soup cake when I was little.