“Small, poor rations again today in the shape of corn bread and peas,” complained a settler of the Allamakee County, Iowa. Though the Allamakee settler looked upon his rations of cornbread and peas in disgust, bread made from cornmeal did play a important role in the diets of the early American settlers and was frequently cited as being quite tasty. The pioneers of the Ohio Valley used cornmeal as their common “bread-stuff,” grinding it with a pestle in a wooden mortar. This roughly ground cornmeal was often prepared as johnny-cakes–a term that is a corruption of “journey-cakes.” The cakes were mixed with rye and lard and baked before the fire on a “johnny” board about two feet long and eight inches wide. In Kentucky, they did things a bit differently: slaves would bake their cornmeal on a hoe and called the finished product hoe cakes.
In My Australian Girlhood, Sketches and Impressions of Bush Life (1902) Mrs. Campbell Praed describes the preparation of johnny cakes in the bush. “First, you must cut a small sheet of bark from a gum tree near,” she writes, “heap on it a mound of flour, in which you must hollow a hole and fill it with water, then work up the mass into a dry dough, which you must cut into thin cakes.” A large part of the art, according to Mrs. Praed, lies in preparing the fire: “For if the ashes be not properly prepared, the Johnny-cake will be heavy and no longer a Johnny-cake; it is then a ‘Leather-jacket,’ or it is a ‘Beggar on coals,’ when little bits of the sticks are turned into charcoal and make black marks on the dough.”
Here’s an 1841 recipe for johnny cakes from The American Housewife. Serve them with butter and maple syrup, or alongside more savory dishes. Just be careful not to bake yourself the dreaded “Leather-jacket”!
Scald a quart of sifted Indian meal [corn meal] with sufficient water to make it a very thick batter. Stir in two or three teaspoonfuls of salt — mould it with the hand into small cakes. In order to mould them up, it will be necessary to rub a good deal of flour on the hands, to prevent their sticking. Fry them in nearly fat enough to cover them. When brown on the underside, they should be turned. It takes about twenty minutes to cook them. When cooked, split and butter them. Another way of making them, which is nice, is to scald the Indian meal, and put in saleratus [baking soda], dissolved in milk and salt, in the proportion of a teaspoonful of each to a quart of meal. Add two or three tablespoons of wheat flour, and drop the batter by large spoonfuls into a frying pan. The batter should be of a very thick consistency, and there should be just fat enough in the frying pan to prevent the cakes sticking to it.