Return to Content

Rhode Island Jonnycakes

Rhode Island Jonnycakes
6 votes, 4.67 avg. rating (91% score)

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.

thick jonnycakes

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
Jonnycakes — a Rhode Island favorite.

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.

perry grist mill

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
The Samuel E. Perry Grist Mill in Perryville, South Kingstown, RI dates back to 1703.

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.

perry grist mill

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
The Perry Grist Mill

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.

rhode island jonnycakes

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
Perfect jonnycake batter…for this household.

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.

rhode island jonnycakes

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
Add more milk for a thinner jonnycake.

After 5 or 6 minutes, the jonnycake bottoms are crisp and brown. Give them a flip and let the other side catch up.

rhode island jonnycakes

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
Time to flip!

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.

Bob and Diane Smith

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
Bob and Diane Smith of Wakefield, RI have been manning the water-powered Perry Grist Mill since the mid-1980’s.

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.

jonnycakes

Photo/Art by Aimee Seavey
Thick-style jonnycakes made from local whitecap flint corn served with plenty of butter.

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!

South County Jonnycakes Recipe Links

Aimee Seavey

Author:

Aimee Seavey

Biography:

Associate Editor Aimee Seavey is a staff writer for Yankee Magazine and assists in the development and promotion of content for YankeeMagazine.com through blogging and social media outlets.

Bring New England Home

Get a Free Trial Issue when you subscribe to Yankee Magazine

In this issue: 

  • 65 Best Summer Events
  • The Elusive Promise of the Maine Tides
  • The Easiest Clambake You'll Ever Make

Subscribe Today

3 Responses to Rhode Island Jonnycakes

  1. Hollis Phillips March 26, 2014 at 7:47 pm #

    The thing that always puzzles me in this debate is that no one ever mentions the use of specific johnny cake pans. I have two that have been in my family for over 50 years. Our johnny cakes were always made on the thick side…you’d let the cast iron pans heat over a gas flame until they were, in the words of my Dad, “smoking hot”. Then you’d add pats of bacon grease, carefully saved over time) to each depression, and plop in the batter, letting it cook for 5-10 minutes on top of the stove until they were brown. Then the pans would be carefully put into a hot oven via a pair of pliers. They would bake for exactly 59 minutes. Out they would come, golden and crusty all over, to be split a covered with a big pat of butter. Only once the butter had melted would you take your first buttery, crisp bite! Pure heaven.

    I have occasionally seen these pans in antique stores, always made from cast iron. My family is from Massachusetts, so perhaps this is a localized version?

  2. Julie March 26, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

    Hi, just for the record, Wakefield is NOT in West Kingston. Both are villages in South Kingstown which is in Washington County. Thanks!

    • Aimee Seavey March 26, 2014 at 8:20 pm #

      Hi Julie! Thanks for your comment. I’ve updated the post to show that both villages are located in South Kingstown. The mill’s mailing address is on Narragansett Road West and I think that’s where my brain pulled the West from! Thanks for the correction!

Leave a Reply

We reserve the right to remove or edit comments that are offensive or disrespectful to our readers and/or writers, cannot be verified, lack clarity, or contain profanity. Your comments may be republished by Yankee Magazine across multiple platforms.

Register Sign In

©2015, Yankee Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Yankee Publishing Inc., | P.O. Box 520, Dublin, NH 03444 | (603) 563-8111