Johnny Reb’s Johnnycake

For more than a few Southerners, the johnnycake is the ultimate example of the Confederate corn bread arts, it being a small, highly portable, highly palatable cake perfect for stowing in a military knapsack. True as that description may be, the johnnycake is in fact a far older invention. The cake goes back to Colonial days, and the name…well, that’s a subject of debate. One thing we know for sure is that it’s not named for “Johnny Reb”, the Union slang term for the Confederate soldier (“Billy Yank” was the equivalent term for Northern men-of-arms). As mentioned in a post yesterday, the who-made-what and who-called-what, where and when is a corn bread can of worms no food historian will likey ever untangle. Yet there are a few theories on the johnnycake, some of which make pretty good sense. Most compelling, at least to me, is the argument that “johnnycake” originated as a mispronunciation of a similar Indian word. The food did originate with the Indians, after all. And anyway, historically, quite a large chunk of our vocabulary can be attributed to the mispronunciation of words from other cultures.

Which word is it then? The standard line is that “johnnycake” evolved from the Narragansett Indian word for the corncake, “nokechick”. It sounds kinda the same, I guess…it has the same number of syllables and a “k” at the end. Yet I have an easier time seeing that particular word as the predecessor of “no-cake” and/or “hoe-cake”, both of which were in common use around the same time. To me it seems obvious that “johnnycake” came from “Shawnee cake”, another term that was in common use back then (the Shawnee were all over the Northeast in Colonial times, these days they mostly live in Eastern Oklahoma and Kansas, where they were shipped in the mid-1800’s). The two terms sound almost identical, yet in all the food reference literature I have, I’ve never seen anyone try to connect the two. But then I’m no linguist, I just play one in the mornings, when I feel like writing something.

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