The ingredient list of johnnycakes—the cornmeal patty made in homes across Rhode Island—can be as short as cornmeal, water, and salt. It’s this simplicity that makes johnnycakes the blank canvas of Rhode Islanders’ culinary lives: They’re topped with syrup, honey, and other sweet treats for a dessert or pancake-like breakfast. They’re slathered with gravy, or just eaten plain, as a side dish. They’re a potato replacement, a stew component, and a frequent dinner guest.
They’re a pancake that works alongside everything, soaking up juices and stray morsels almost the way rice does.
For a simple food, though, johnnycakes have a contentious history―so much so that in the 1880s, the state legislature brought stoves into the capitol rotunda to suss out the one true way to make them. Not only did people leave without answers that day, but a full-on brawl broke out.
The debate all comes down to whether one prefers johnnycakes to be thin and crispy, or thick and fluffy. The Narragansett Bay seems to be where the divide lies, according to The New England Cookbook. Those living east of the bay seem to prefer the thin variety, which is made with cold milk. People west of the bay are partial to thicker johnnycakes made with boiling water, which are thicker and sweeter.
This debate continues today, and it’s not the only point of contention: In the 1940s, the state legislature deemed that only local, hard-to-find flint corn could be used to make Rhode Island johnnycakes.
Yet Native Americans were the progenitors of johnnycakes, as ground corn was a staple crop of the area. They used two flat stones to grind corn into meal, which would then be combined with water and baked in the ashes of a fire (hence the alternative name “ashcake,” or “shawnee cake,” after one Indian tribe). There are many competing theories for the name johnnycake, and adding to the linguistic confusion, regional varieties are found outside New England. Hoecakes, a kind of cornmeal flatbread, can be found throughout the Southern United States. And sweet, dumpling-like snacks, also called johnnycakes, are a favorite Jamaican street food.
But if you’re in Rhode Island, johnnycakes means just one thing, which can be used many, many different ways.