Talk about classic American baking…

Baking doesn’t get any more American than johnnycakes. Native Americans were the first peoples to make flat cakes out of mixtures of pounded roasted corn and water. The batter or mush would be spread out on hot, flat rocks (either thin slabs placed over a fire, or hot spots where a fire had been allowed to burn before being swept away) for thorough heating. The end result was a fairly basic preparation as you might imagine, though depending on availability, other things like berries or beans might be mixed in for flavor or texture.

Early European settlers were quick to take up Indian “pone”, “ash cakes”, “hoe cakes” or “johnny cakes”, though not because they thought these Indian breads were especially delicious. These were wheat people. “Indian flour” (corn meal) was for them a food of last resort. In time, however, corn breads became a staple of North American cuisine. No longer heated on rocks, most of them were griddled over fires or baked in shallow pans in hearths.

Granted, all-corn “pone”-style breads and porridges remained the food of the poor, particularly the Southern poor. Still, toothsome additions like hog fat and salted pork were commonplace. People with a little more disposable income could get even more creative. Most of these folks supplemented their corn batters with wheat flour to give their cakes height, tenderness and a finer texture. Dairy products like milk and butter made a good thing even better.

Thus there’s no one “original” recipe for these preparations. Every town in early America, from Massachusetts to Georgia, made theirs differently. The recipes would vary according to who was making them and what sorts of ingredients happened to be available. The johnnycakes we’re making fit squarely into this tradition. So it’s nice then, isn’t it, the way in which challenging times like these can put us in touch with a food that’s a cornerstone of our culture. A spirit, too.

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