Rhode Island Jonnycakes
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 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.
Diane says the batter should be sturdy but thin enough to easily slip off a spoon (think buttery mashed potatoes), and the griddle should be hot with an even coating of bacon grease or corn oil. Like all good cooks, she advises you to trust your eye and instinct to tell you when the consistency is just right.
After 5 or 6 minutes, the jonnycake bottoms are crisp and brown. Give them a flip and let the other side catch up.
Hot and crisp with a slightly chewy center, the jonnycakes tasted better than I expected. Slightly nutty and with a pleasantly coarse texture, the flavor was pure and good, enhanced, but not overpowered by a good spread of butter. “Never maple syrup!” they both tell me, although a little creamed cod or chipped beef on top is alright for lunch or dinner. It’s true that just because something looks like a little pancake doesn’t mean it should be eaten like one. After eating a few jonnycakes apiece, Bob and Diane sent me on my way with a bag of their Rhode Island Johnnycake Meal (made from 100% Rhode Island Flint Corn) and a promise to call the next time they know the mill will be grinding so I can see it in action.
And sure enough, I’ve made another batch of jonnycakes at home since then, trying to get them just like Diane’s. The nutty cornmeal taste is oddly addictive. Try some yourself and see if you don’t agree.
Are you a jonnycake lover (or johnnycake lover)? Do you like them thick or thin? If you want a thin version try our recipe for Thin Cold-Milk Johnnycakes. And let us know what you think!
A special thank you to Bob and Diane Smith for the lovely visit and special lesson!