In R.I., johnnycakes mean tradition and foodie fodder

In R.I., johnnycakes mean tradition and foodie fodder

Originally created as "journey cakes" for travel after Native Americans gifted English settlers with corn meal, johnnycakes remain a Rhode Island culinary tradition, and have seen a renewed interest as people focus on local, unprocessed foods.

A staple of Rhode Island's culinary history has seen a resurgence as of late, as residents and foodies alike rediscover the corn-based treat that has been around since Native Americans and English settlers first broke bread.

Johnnycakes, a dense cake made of stone-ground corn meal and a bit of salt and sugar, will be consumed at many a May breakfast this month by those who have childhood memories of grabbing them hot off the griddle after a morning of chores.

But they may also make an appearance on the plate of a fine dining restaurant, or paired with wines at a vineyard tasting.

Paul Drumm, owner of Kenyon's Grist Mill in the Richmond and South Kingstown village of Usquepaug, said the increase in interest comes from people wanting the local food experience and becoming more mindful of whole grains and unrefined flour.

"People are into trying new foods," he said. "It's even better if it's a traditional food from somewhere else."

There are two factions of johnnycakes in Rhode Island, he said. Those in the East Bay favor a thin, crunchy cake served with syrup, like those served at Commons Lunch in Little Compton, while West Bay natives tend to prefer a thick, more dense cake with just butter.

Kenyon's Grist Mill, the world's largest manufacturer of johnnycake meal, serves up the latter, Drumm said, with johnnycakes measuring up to three-quarters of an inch thick.

Really, it depends on what the cakes will be served with, he explained, adding they compliment creamed dishes well as a kind of dumpling.

But Kenyon's has also been experimenting, thanks to Dick Donnelly, who Drumm said is "ingenious with recipes."

Creating whipped butter toppings infused with maple syrup or chambois for a berry taste elevates the classic and reaches new audiences.

"That definitely helps us," Drumm said.

Johnnycakes started as a "sustenance food," as Drumm calls it. Native Americans gifted the English corn meal from the White Cap Indian Flint Corn.

The natives taught settlers how to harvest the corn themselves, and they in turn created a cornmeal mush that was later dried out and made into a cake so it could be eaten while traveling.

Thus, "journey cakes" were born, and likely pronounced "jarney" by settlers with English accents, Drumm said.

Their structure changed a bit once cast iron cookware was brought stateside, he said, and a combination of ash and plants was added to act as baking soda, creating a final product like corn bread that is seen more in the south.

"In Rhode Island, we've hung onto a snapshot somewhere in the middle," Drumm said, with cakes that are scalded in boiling hot water for six minutes on each side.

Johnnycakes were traditionally eaten by farmers and their families, who would enjoy them with a large breakfast after completing morning chores, but they also became popular during World War I and II when supplies were rationed and families knew they could live off five-pound bags of cornmeal.

"It's just been a tradition they'll always have," Drumm said.

They are still a popular treat for families. Drumm said he could make the largest platter of the goodies for his home, and they would still be gone within the day.

After all, he said, they are best when they are fresh.

Kenyon's johnnycakes will be served at the Statehouse on Thursday, May 1, for Rhode Island Agriculture Day; at Smith's Castle Bridge in North Kingstown on Saturday and Sunday, May 3 and 4; and at the Statehouse on Tuesday, May 6, for Celebrate South County Day.

The annual Johnny Cake Festival has been canceled this year after the passing of Drumm's father, Paul Drumm, who bought the mill in 1971. Drumm said the plan is to start hosting it biannually, with the next one in 2016.

In the meantime, area May breakfasts will feature johnnycakes on their menus:

* The Chepachet Union Church, 1138 Putnam Pike in Chepachet, will serve its 91st annual May Breakfast on Saturday, May 3, from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

The menu includes johnnycakes, scrambled eggs and bacon, as well as homemade granola and natural yogurt. Cost is $8 for adults, and $5 for children 12 and under.

* Enjoy johnnycakes and other breakfast items at North Scituate Baptist Church, 619 West Greenville Road in Scituate, on Saturday, May 3, from 7 to 11 a.m. for its 120th annual May Breakfast.

Cost is $9 for adults, and $5 for children under 12. Call 401-647-3238.

* The Smith-Appleby House, 220 Stillwater Road in Smithfield, will host its 41st annual May Breakfast on Sunday, May 4, at 11 a.m. Reservations are required.

Johnnycakes, berry breads, omelets, and old fashioned baked beans are among the offerings. Admission is $20 per person and includes a self-guided tour. Call 401-231-7363.

Visit www.kenyonsgristmill.com to learn more about johnnycakes and the mill, as well as place an online order for Johnny Cake Meal__ mix, which can also be found in local, independent grocery stores and shops.

Kenyon's Grist Mill makes its johnnycake mix the old-fashioned way, stone-grinding the grain to make a corn meal.
By using two-and-a-half-ton stones to ground its grain into corn meal, Kenyon's Grist Mill follows a more traditional process than other modern day manufacturers as it creates the ingredients for johnnycakes.
Made of corn meal, sugar and salt, johnnycakes have long been a Rhode Island culinary staple and continue to be made by Kenyon's Grist Mill in South County.