Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Johnny, Jonny or Journey?


Where to even begin...

As I have shown in my article Behind A Crows Ear, I have outlined the beginnings of corn here in New England as well as the Southern states. Out of the myriad of recipes that have graced our tables throughout the ages using this life-sustaining grass, one or two dishes hold up to our taste buds now as it did many generations ago. Be it the leavened "bread" or unleavened "cake", the prefix to both have been giving fits to all who seek the origin. That prefix is "Journey", "Jonny" or "Johnny". Not only is the correct attachment to both "bread" and "cake" sought, but the origins of this prefix is just as enticingly argumentative. But I will forward one solution! The Yankee Chef is here to tell you what I believe to be the answer, pure and simple.

The former Chairman of the Society for the Propagation of the Jonnycake, Mrs. James Herbert of Providence once said that Jonnycake is Rhode Island's native dish. I would like to start by saying that, although I am a Yankee(regardless of which state), the state of Rhode Island cannot be singled as the beginning of this New England staple. But at the same time, I cannot put the origins in any one particular state either. It belongs to all of us, but if Rhode Islander's want the glory, I am all too happy to give it to them, with no prejudice whatsoever.


Let's start our 'journey'(no pun.......actually, pun INTENDED)with the difference between Jonnycake and Jonnybread. Jonnycake has always, and still should be, considered a crepe-type flapjack/flat-bread, while the Jonnybread is the cornbread we all know and love today.

There are many variations on the theme, not the least being:

Indian Flapjack(or Slapjack). This is cornmeal, flour, eggs and milk that is mixed and cooked in a dry, iron pan that has been “rubbed with suet or lard”, as mentioned in a very old manuscript.

Southern Ash Cake. Simply cornmeal and boiling water, this batter was seasoned with salt if it was available and cooked on a hot hearth stone with hot ashes covering the top.

Batter Bread, ca. 1800. With the addition of white, milled flour, eggs and milk, it was a pale version of Indian Flapjacks as mentioned above but was cooked in metal molds directly in an oven.

Granted these dishes as old, but they pale in comparison to the beginnings of Jonnycakes, and thusly Jonnybreads.

If you have read my article on corn in Behind The Crows Ear, you will see the origins and beginnings of corn in New England. With that in mind, I can tell you that long before Europeans arrived on these shores, corn was dried and powdered, to be mixed with water and cooked. This was the start of Journeycake, so-called because, obviously, it was great to take with you on one's travels in the Puritan days of Yankee-land. During the 17th century, most traveling was done on foot or by boat. Horses were not to be used for traveling until the last decades of the 1600s, and then only by the affluent. So needless to say, it took all day just to get to the next town over. Native Americans and colonists alike often trod the old Bay Paths for days on end. What better food staple to take with them, than something that would last the entire traveling time, than a ready made “bread”?

A 1900 stereoscopic view of the original Old Bay Path in Massachusetts

It is said that the first decade of the 1700s, in the Middle Atlantic colonies, Johnny Cake was named in private correspondences. It was to be made with cornmeal, white flour, molasses and enough hot water to hold it together. It was then made into small, flat cakes and grilled "in a greased pan" until browned. This seems to be yet another handed-down story.

There have been explanations that Jonnycake is a derivation of Shawnee cake. Even one story that said it was so named after a certain Jonathan Trumbull. Also argued is that an 'H' should never be placed in the name.

As we reach the middle of the 1700s, Jonakin(or Jonikin) is mentioned as being the root word for Jonnycake. I would like to believe this, especially since many prominent Historians have concluded such, but I can find not one single reference that states the word Jonikin, Jonakin, Jonekin, Joneken or any variation of this as being the root of Jonnycake. These professionals go on to say that Jonikin is rooted from Jannock(another supposed Algonquin word say some authorities while others state it is English in origin from the 15th century). Sure, Jannock was around in England, but not until the late 18th, early 19th century. It meant 'straight-forward' and had nothing to do with food.
Courtesy of

I WILL concede, though, that Bannock has a spot in this controversy. Bannock is a very old flat bread that has been made and called as such well before the 12th century in England. But it was not made of cornmeal, rather oats or barley that had been dried and ground. There is no doubt that early colonists brought this "bread" over with them from England, but making it with corn here in New England. Some colonists may have held onto the name Bannock even when using corn, but following this avenue is both fruitless and not worth mention again. Sorry Bannock. Close, but no cigar!

A copy of a page from William Woods book

Jonikin is also said to mean, literally 'corn cake'. Let me show you why this is, in my opinion, totally false. Take for example the list below of known Indian words from the time period from the known "tribes" that were present at the colonization of New England in Massachusetts , which is where the Native Americans would have first shown the Europeans how to make this "cake".

For example, the Narragansett tribe, part of the Algonquins and the most numerous of the Native Americans in Rhode Island, called 'corn' Ewáchimine. It is widely believed that the word o nókehick meant 'dried corn mixed with water and cooked', but unproven.

One must remember that the Native Americans didn't write anything down during this time, so words were spelled by the Europeans as they sounded, phonetically.

William Wood, a chronicler of New England Indians, their manners, customs and language mentions that isattonaneise was the Indian word for 'bread' by the Pequots. William Wood was a great authority on words used by the Natives of the early colonies of New England, as evidenced by his book, published in England in 1639, called New England's Prospect: A True, Lively, and Experimental Description of That Part of America, commonly called New England . He states that appsuash weatchimmíneash was plural for 'roasted corn' and missunkquaminnémeash was plural for 'dried corn' by the Pequots.

Nausamp was also an Algonquin word for a' pottage' made from unparched corn, mixed with water and cooked. Nausamp literally means 'softened by water'. Nasasamp was the word used by the Narragansetts and Nasaump was, and is, a traditional Wampanoag dish that is made from cornmeal, berries, groundnuts and boiled in water till thick.

Sowhawmen and bannock were also Indian words for the same preparation, although the particular tribe in which these words originated is lost.


The Wampanoag Tribe referred to a grilled bread made from dried corn as Petuckquinneg while Nhkik was their word for 'parched corn'.

So as you can see, the earliest name for Journeycake would've been a combination or derivation of one of these words. Or the Natives may have used either Nausamp(Samp as commonly and contemporarily referred to as) or o nókehick for this 'cake'. .

Cornmeal mixed with water and cooked in a thin "cake" on a flat, large stone before a fire is undoubtedly the first presentation of Journeycake. The name for this flat-bread at the beginning may be lost in history but it would not have been the Native Americans that would have named it Journey Bread. In fact, if one were to truly call it by it's 'Indian' name, it would have been completely different, as proven above.


There is one explanation given by an authority that I will keep nameless because it is the most ridiculous explanation I have ever heard. he says that Jonnycake is derived from Journeycake because New Englanders don't pronounce our 'R'. So if you were to take the 'R' out of Journeycake, what do you have? Just give me a second to stop laughing and we will continue........

By 1750, Hoe(or "Johnycake") Cake came into its' own. Amelia Simmons(in her 1796 cookbook) calls for Indian meal in her 'Hoe Cake', and it was to be baked before the fire(as the Native Americans had been doing for centuries) or spread on a hoe.

A 1776 diary entry of a certain Thos. Vernon mentions that he enjoyed "jonny cake" while in Rhode Island. This author believes that, although it is the same thing in principle, Hoe Cake was just a regional name for the same dish made since time immemorial.

Mary Randolph, of Virginia, mentions the name "Jonne Cake" in his 1824 diary and goes on to say that "it was an excellent article with which to fill the traveler's knapsack".

In 1840, a book entitled Two Years Before the Mast was published and it was a diary of a Richard Dana. My father once had this book and I remember reading it when I was in my mid-20s, but it has been long lost now. Anyway, the Maine born captain, by the name of Francis Thompson, set sail from Boston in the Pilgrim with the author of the book. Richard mentions "Johnnycake" was eaten by Captain Thompson, spelling it with the 'H'.

Now many of you have contacted me, already, with regards to my column on grits. Some of you are positive in your email exchanges while others are down-right maniacal about which is the better grind. I am sure I will receive just as many emails about this column as well. All I can say is that I am giving you the benefit of my knowledge when it comes to food, in particular-New England cuisine and the history thereof. Everyone has their opinion of which is better or what has been handed down in their family as authentic.

A perfect example would be a state Senator by the name of Benjamin Boyd, who related that he takes his cornmeal "as it comes off the stone." And after mixing in various ingredients, he never EVER washes the griddle after his Jonnycakes are cooked. While, on the other hand, another former Representative, this time of the Narragansetts, says to ALWAYS wash the griddle when making steel-ground grits. There is even debate, to this day, which type of granite is best for grinding cornmeal.

Although there have been many claims as to the authenticity, origination and nomenclature of Jonnycake, I will not pounce on any one authority by name that is still living, I must, however, state another false-hood with relation to Jonnycakes' original ingredients. Let me state unequivocally that cornmeal and water were the only two ingredients for many centuries until the Europeans arrived. At times, when abundant, freshly crushed berries were added for flavor often, but that is all. When a supposed authority on Rhode Island Jonnycakes says that her 10-generation-old recipe for Jonnycake is cornmeal, sugar, milk and salt(which has been claimed).............she is sorely mistaken. Sugar was not present for quite some time at the beginning of New England. Certainly molasses would have been used as time progressed, and it was used on occasion. Salt was unknown. And milk? Well, it just wasn't used in Jonnycakes, no matter where you lived for many generations. Sure, it is used today, but still not very often.

So in summation.

Journeycakes are the unleavened, flat-breads made with only dried corn that had been ground and moistened with water, and were made thusly for many centuries before Europeans arrived on the shores of New England. Although they weren't referred to as Journeycakes, I will use this name to keep everything simple.

When the colonists arrived and learned how to make this "cake" from the Native Americans(most likely the Pawtuxet band of the Wampanoags, it was taken across our land and enjoyed by everyone. Sure, the English immigrants had eaten Bannock for centuries before the 1600s, but it was made with oats and wheat, with it being cooked as a flat-bread very infrequently.

The Natives of New England may have had a word for this Journeycake, but it is lost in time. I tend to believe that the word Nausamp was the name used among the Natives however, but of course it will never be verified, unfortunately. Of course we needed to have a name for the "cake" that withstood the elements and conditions of travel so well, so it was called Journeycake. Over time, and not because we couldn't pronounce our "R's" either, it became Jonnycake. This is simple and elementary "word transgression", so often encountered in every facet of historical documentation.

There may be a hint of historical accuracy, however, in the name Shawnee Cake. I do think many colonists may have referred to Journeycakes as such because of the Shawnee's showing some colonists how to prepare this cake. But, as with Hoe Cake and the other attributions, I believe this to be a regional name instead of an original name.

Courtesy of

The origin of this cake is Massachusetts, only because(in all probability), the Natives showed the new settlers how to make them. But it truly does belong to all of New England.

Sometime during the 18th century, Jonny Bread(or Corn Bread) became popular when a leavening agent was added, along with a sweetener, such as sugar or molasses.

There, my friends, you have it. Until I am shown or I find other references, this is the most sound explanation of the name Jonnycake.


historyjunkie said...

Boy Yankee chef, you really know your craft. I have sent many MANY of my history colleagues here in Massachusetts to your blog. And am proud(and relived) to say not one of them can dismiss or discredit your ideas and end results in any of your posts.

Anonymous said...

fascinating as always

many decades ago I was introduced to corn flapjacks as "crepes sauvage"

I've made them with meal and with grits...both are quite good

at the end of your post you bring up a tidbit that has inspired quite a few kitchen wars...cornbread with a sweetener added to the batter

almost universally honey or sorghum, etc could be spread on the finished product..but included in the batter...oh my!

I used to think it was geographical (with the passage of time I suspect it is based on economics), but I had aunts from the same fifty miles of nowhere who would contest the rectitude of such an addition

just thoufgt you would be interested

The Yankee Chef said...

I learn something new everyday, thank you. You know one thing I miss? My Dad and grandfather, and many generations before them, always had biscuits and molasses for breakfast and if that wasn't available, they had pie. Mostly fruit pies. I even remember having biscuits and molasses along with pie growing up. Those days are long gone I am afraid. I certainly appreciate your input and always welcome anything you can add to any of my posts.

Anonymous said...

dad was from the deep south, mom from the great plains

dad sorghum
dad baking powder baking soda biscuits
we compromised on jelly.... kids 7/ parents 2
baking powder rolled biscuits... 8/1

to this day I can't stand even the smell of sorghum

I worked a rural area for several years. coffee breaks and lunch usually happened out on a dirt road somewhere, care of my trusty Stanley thermos.

the café we tried to make each morning had a motley bunch of early risers. most notably the worn-out fellow who pumped septic tanks in the area. he sat (alone) at the end of the rail with a piece of pie, bacon and a glass of milk. mmmm! apple pie and bacon...the ultimate country breakfast!