Rhode Island Jonnycakes | Thick South County Style
A Rhode Island classic, jonnycakes (or johnnycakes) are thick or thin cornmeal pancakes depending on what part of the Ocean State you’re in. Either way they’re delicious, but today we head to Rhode Island’s South County where they like ‘em thick and crunchy.
In 2010 Yankee celebrated its 75th anniversary with a special issue that included “How New England Are You?” (a roundup of 75 New England “musts” compiled by senior editor Ian Aldrich), and one thing on the list was what Ian referred to as “Debate the Cakes.” I’ll share it in his words here:
Rhode Islanders have come to blows over jonnycakes for any number of reasons–over how they originated (Indians vs. settlers), over how to spell the name (journey-cake vs. Johnny cake vs. Jonny cake vs. johnnycake vs. jonnycake), over which kind of corn to grind for jonnycake meal (whitecap flint vs. white dent), and even over how to grind that corn (hot and round vs. flat and cool). Of course the most heated arguments occur over the “correct” way to make them: Debates about the merits of South County (West Bay)-style (thick, made with boiling water) vs. Newport County (East Bay)-style (thin, made with cold milk) have even reached the Rhode Island legislature. It’s enough to work up a healthy appetite.
Suffice it to say this is a dish nobody can entirely agree on, even in Rhode Island, so as a New Hampshire and Massachusetts girl, I knew I would need to at least head south to learn more. I had put together a list of stone-ground cornmeal resources in New England for a recent story on northern cornbread (“Cornbread Love“), so I knew which grist mill I most wanted to visit — the Samuel E. Perry Grist Mill (formerly Carpenter’s Grist Mill) in Perryville (part of South Kingstown), Rhode Island. It’s the only working water-powered mill left in the state, and has been in continuous operation since it was built in 1703.
So on a recent visit to nearby Westerly, Rhode Island, I took a detour on the way home to check it out.
They weren’t grinding on the day I was in town, but the charming little red mill was worth a look, and a fine example of the kind of of architectural scenery we love so much in New England.
Nearby in Wakefield (another village in South Kingstown) mill operators Bob and Diane Smith welcomed me into their home for a hands-on South County jonnycake demonstration. The couple have been manning the Perry mill and managing orders since the mid-1980’s, and are rightly proud of their small-batch operation — the only one in the state to use all Rhode Island grown and ground corn, so the only one allowed to label it “jonnycake” without the “h” according to Rhode Island law. What a treat for me to learn from the pros!
Remember, in the great thick vs. thin debate, South County, where the Perry mill is located, favors a thicker jonnycake made by pouring boiling water over a blend of cornmeal (or “jonnycake meal”), sugar, and salt. A little milk thins the batter to your desired consistency, and then, it’s time for the hot griddle.