Johnny Cakes

“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.”

An 1890 illustration from the tale of little Johnny-Cake


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”!

Johnny Cakes

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.

From the White House: Laplands

James Knox Polk, Democrat and eleventh president of the United States (1845-1849), served as governor of Tennessee before ascending to the nation’s highest office. A dynamic leader, he oversaw the successful Mexican-American War. Despite the wave of popularity he enjoyed as a result of this war’s successful prosecution, he refused to seek a second term, and shortly after completing his first and only term he died of cholera.

Polk was born in a simple log cabin in Mecklenburg County. His father was a farmer frugal in his habits, but of a disposition kind and generous. As the oldest of ten children, Polk had to assume a great deal of responsibility for his siblings. Yet he managed to find time for his studies. When his family moved to the banks of the Cumberland River in Tennessee, Polk came under the tutelage of Rev. Dr. Henderson at the Academy of Murfreesburg, and in the autumn of 1815 he entered the University of North Carolina, from which he graduated in 1818 with highest honors.

A dignified austerity marked Polk’s term in office. Intent on eliminating the custom of dueling, which, recall, sped Alexander Hamilton to his long home, Polk quickly secured the passage of a law banning this barbaric remnant of the past, as he considered it. His wife, Sarah Childress Polk, helped him in these endeavors. She was a strict Presbyterian, plain of looks but charmingly intelligent, who quickly changed the image of the President’s home, initiating bans on drinking, dancing, card playing and fancy dining.

Here’s The Heritage Cook Book‘s traditional recipe for laplands, small muffin-like biscuits that were popular at the First Family’s austere table. Serve them with butter and jam.


2 egg yolks
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup milk
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon butter, melted
2 stiffly beaten egg whites

Beat egg yolks till thick and lemon-colored, 4 to 5 minutes. Blend in flour, milk, sugar, butter, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Beat 2 to 3 minutes. Gently fold in egg whites. Fill well-greased 2-inch muffin pans 2/3 full. Bake at 375 degrees F. for 30 to 35 minutes. Makes 10.

From Matera, Italy: Bread Soup

The hills near Matera, Italy stand brown and cragged against a cornflower-blue sky. For centuries their arid slopes defied nearly all attempts at cultivation; as a result, the inhabitants of Matera suffered the worst privation, such as living side-by-side with their livestock in caves. An 1878 guidebook describes Matera as “a dirty town [its] lower classes [being] the least civilized of the province of Basilicata.” But the farmers of Matera did manage to produce from the dry and rocky soil excellent wine and olive oil, and their traditional dishes reflect this meager but flavorsome yield.

Here is a recipe from the province of Basilicata for bread soup, a clever dish that turns day-old bread into a savory supper. Serve it with a green salad and red wine.

Bread Soup

9 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
4 eggs, well beaten
1/2 pound stale crusty Italian bread, crumbled or cut into squares
ground hot pepper
1 small bunch basil, chopped
1 pint (500 ml) water
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pecorino Romano cheese, to taste

Place crumbled bread in soup bowls. In a large soup pot, saute the garlic and ground hot pepper. Add the water and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, then stir in the basil and eggs. Pour soup over crumbled bread in soup bowls. Add salt and pepper and grated Pecorino Romano, if desired.