What is a Johnnycake?

In the 1869 Cherokee West census, there are several families with the surname Johnnycake.  This makes me wonder, what, exactly, is a Johnnycake and what is the history of the food?

Some think these fried cornmeal cakes were originally called Journey Cakes, while others belive they were first called Shawnee Cakes after the tribe in the Tennessee Valley.  They look much like a cornmeal pancake.   You can find a recipe here:  http://southernfood.about.com/od/cornbread/r/bl01002g.htm

Also spelled Jonnycakes, the earliest attestation of the term “johnny cake” is from 1739 (in South Carolina); the spelling “journey cake” is only attested from 1775 (on the Gulf coast), but may be the earlier form. The word is likely based on the word “Jonakin,” recorded in New England in 1765, itself derived from the word “jannock,” recorded in Northern England in the 16th century.  According to wiki, it is the term was the name given “by the [American] negroes to a cake made of Indian corn (maize).”

The cornmeal flatbread is indigenous to the Native people and is prepared and eaten from Newfoundland to Jamaica.  It’s now a New England staple and is known also as “hoecake” in the south. 

Native Americans were using ground corn for cooking long before European explorers arrived in the New World. The jonnycake originates with the native inhabitants of Northern America; the Algonquians of the Atlantic seaboard are credited with teaching Europeans how to make the food.

Southern Native American culture (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek) is the “cornerstone” of Southern cuisine. From their culture came one of the main staples of the Southern diet: corn (maize), either ground into meal or limed with an alkaline salt to make hominy, also called masa, in a Native American technology known as nixtamalization. Corn was used to make all kinds of dishes from the familiar cornbread and grits to liquors such as whiskey and moonshine, which were important trade items. Cornbread was popular during the American Civil War because it was very cheap and could be made in many different sizes and forms. It could be fashioned into high-rising, fluffy loaves or simply fried for a fast meal.

To a far greater degree than anyone realizes, several of the most important food dishes that the Southeastern Indians live on today is the “soul food” eaten by both black and white Southerners. Hominy, for example, is still eaten … Sofkee live on as grits … cornbread [is] used by Southern cooks … Indian fritters … variously known as “hoe cake”, … or “Johnny cake.” … Indian boiled cornbread is present in Southern cuisine as “corn meal dumplings”, … and as “hush puppies”, … Southerners cook their beans and field peas by boiling them, as did the Indians … like the Indians they cure their meat and smoke it over hickory coals.
—- Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians.

About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Cherokee, Food. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What is a Johnnycake?

  1. Yvonne says:

    I grew up on all these! It’s been years, though, since I’ve thought about “hoe cakes.” I still love hominy and grits, though!

  2. Bruce says:

    “It’s now a New England staple” ????
    I am a New Englander (many generations here). Never heard of Johnny Cake! What was that author smoking?
    In some areas corn bread (baked not fried!) is popular, but hardly qualifies as a “staple”.
    Just my two cents.

  3. Mic Barnette says:

    One of my coworkers is a member of the Delaware-Cherokee tribes. I knew from speaking with her about her Native American ancestry she was descended from a Delaware Chief Journeycake. After reading your Johnnycake article I thought there might be a correlation so I did some research on Chief Journeycake. I really did not see why he was called that, but, his history was very colorful and he really was a chief. My friend was very excited with what I found and I just barely scratched the surface of what I was finding.

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