Rhode Island Jonnycakes

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A Rhode Island classic, jonnycakes (or johnnycakes) are thick or thin cornmeal pancakes depending on what part of the Ocean State you’re in. Either way they’re delicious, but today we head to Rhode Island’s South County where they like ’em thick and crunchy.

thick jonnycakes

Jonnycakes — a Rhode Island favorite.

Aimee Seavey

In 2010 Yankee celebrated its 75th anniversary with a special issue that included “How New England Are You?” (a roundup of 75 New England “musts” compiled by senior editor Ian Aldrich), and one thing on the list was what Ian referred to as “Debate the Cakes.” I’ll share it in his words here:

Rhode Islanders have come to blows over jonnycakes for any number of reasons–over how they originated (Indians vs. settlers), over how to spell the name (journey-cake vs. Johnny cake vs. Jonny cake vs. johnnycake vs. jonnycake), over which kind of corn to grind for jonnycake meal (whitecap flint vs. white dent), and even over how to grind that corn (hot and round vs. flat and cool). Of course the most heated arguments occur over the “correct” way to make them: Debates about the merits of South County (West Bay)-style (thick, made with boiling water) vs. Newport County (East Bay)-style (thin, made with cold milk) have even reached the Rhode Island legislature. It’s enough to work up a healthy appetite.

Suffice it to say this is a dish nobody can entirely agree on, even in Rhode Island, so as a New Hampshire and Massachusetts girl, I knew I would need to at least head south to learn more. I had put together a list of stone-ground cornmeal resources in New England for a recent story on northern cornbread (“Cornbread Love“), so I knew which grist mill I most wanted to visit — the Samuel E. Perry Grist Mill (formerly Carpenter’s Grist Mill) in Perryville (part of South Kingstown), Rhode Island. It’s the only working water-powered mill left in the state, and has been in continuous operation since it was built in 1703.

So on a recent visit to nearby Westerly, Rhode Island, I took a detour on the way home to check it out.

perry grist mill

The Samuel E. Perry Grist Mill in Perryville, South Kingstown, RI dates back to 1703.

Aimee Seavey

They weren’t grinding on the day I was in town, but the charming little red mill was worth a look, and a fine example of the kind of architectural scenery we love so much in New England.

perry grist mill

The Perry Grist Mill

Aimee Seavey

Nearby in Wakefield (another village in South Kingstown) mill operators Bob and Diane Smith welcomed me into their home for a hands-on South County jonnycake demonstration. The couple have been manning the Perry mill and managing orders since the mid-1980’s, and are rightly proud of their small-batch operation — the only one in the state to use all Rhode Island grown and ground corn, so the only one allowed to label it “jonnycake” without the “h” according to Rhode Island law. What a treat for me to learn from the pros!

Remember, in the great thick vs. thin debate, South County, where the Perry mill is located, favors a thicker jonnycake made by pouring boiling water over a blend of cornmeal (or “jonnycake meal”), sugar, and salt. A little milk thins the batter to your desired consistency, and then, it’s time for the hot griddle.

rhode island jonnycakes

Perfect jonnycake batter…for this household.

Aimee Seavey

Diane says the batter should be sturdy but thin enough to easily slip off a spoon (think buttery mashed potatoes), and the griddle should be hot with an even coating of bacon grease or corn oil. Like all good cooks, she advises you to trust your eye and instinct to tell you when the consistency is just right.

rhode island jonnycakes

Add more milk for a thinner jonnycake.

Aimee Seavey

After 5 or 6 minutes, the jonnycake bottoms are crisp and brown. Give them a flip and let the other side catch up.

rhode island jonnycakes

Time to flip!

Aimee Seavey

Hot and crisp with a slightly chewy center, the jonnycakes tasted better than I expected. Slightly nutty and with a pleasantly coarse texture, the flavor was pure and good, enhanced, but not overpowered by a good spread of butter. “Never maple syrup!” they both tell me, although a little creamed cod or chipped beef on top is alright for lunch or dinner. It’s true that just because something looks like a little pancake doesn’t mean it should be eaten like one. After eating a few jonnycakes apiece, Bob and Diane sent me on my way with a bag of their Rhode Island Johnnycake Meal (made from 100% Rhode Island Flint Corn) and a promise to call the next time they know the mill will be grinding so I can see it in action.

Bob and Diane Smith

Bob and Diane Smith of Wakefield, RI have been manning the water-powered Perry Grist Mill since the mid-1980’s.

Aimee Seavey

And sure enough, I’ve made another batch of jonnycakes at home since then, trying to get them just like Diane’s. The nutty cornmeal taste is oddly addictive. Try some yourself and see if you don’t agree.

jonnycakes

Thick-style jonnycakes made from local whitecap flint corn served with plenty of butter.

Aimee Seavey

Are you a jonnycake lover (or johnnycake lover)? Do you like them thick or thin? If you want a thin version try our recipe for Thin Cold-Milk Johnnycakes. And let us know what you think!

A special thank you to Bob and Diane Smith for the lovely visit and special lesson!

South County Jonnycakes Recipe Links

Comments
  • Hollis P.

    The thing that always puzzles me in this debate is that no one ever mentions the use of specific johnny cake pans. I have two that have been in my family for over 50 years. Our johnny cakes were always made on the thick side…you’d let the cast iron pans heat over a gas flame until they were, in the words of my Dad, “smoking hot”. Then you’d add pats of bacon grease, carefully saved over time) to each depression, and plop in the batter, letting it cook for 5-10 minutes on top of the stove until they were brown. Then the pans would be carefully put into a hot oven via a pair of pliers. They would bake for exactly 59 minutes. Out they would come, golden and crusty all over, to be split a covered with a big pat of butter. Only once the butter had melted would you take your first buttery, crisp bite! Pure heaven.

    I have occasionally seen these pans in antique stores, always made from cast iron. My family is from Massachusetts, so perhaps this is a localized version?

    Reply
  • Hi, just for the record, Wakefield is NOT in West Kingston. Both are villages in South Kingstown which is in Washington County. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Aimee S.

    Hi Julie! Thanks for your comment. I’ve updated the post to show that both villages are located in South Kingstown. The mill’s mailing address is on Narragansett Road West and I think that’s where my brain pulled the West from! Thanks for the correction!

    Reply
  • South Kingstown is known to all of us natives as South County. And, as an aside, the thick jonnycake is the Official Rhode Island jonnycake.

    Reply
  • Larry M.

    My family was from Portsmouth RI and jonny cakes were a daily event. I can remember my grandfather taking me to GRAY’s Mill in Adamstown, MA. JC’s (as called them) was ground at that mill often.I recall a bag of meal was $.59 about 1lb. Today meal is from KENYON’s in Usquepaugh,RI (near URI campus)..
    We were taught NEVER but NEVER to have boiling water near the meal, thus we had thin cakes. Now I live in DE but often travel to RI and usually get a couple of pounds of meal to have on hand.
    You are correct, thin vs. thick exists to this day . GO THIN!!!!

    Reply
  • Brian B.

    Great receipe! Living in Tx. All my life but with NH roots in will look for skillet to restore & try both

    Reply
  • Linda L.

    My father was a commercial fisherman out of Wickford, RI and Johnny cakes and fish were a staple in our home a few nights a week. Your recipe is how my mother made them and my sister and I do to this day. I am not happy when my Swedish husband puts maple syrup on them. And oh yes, “thick” is the only way to go!

    Reply
  • Ardith

    Last year at a Heritage Days event I made corn bread (very similar to Johnny Cakes) over an open fire in a cast aluminum scone pan. They were delicious with the smoky open flame flavor. This year I think I will try this recipe. Oh, by the way, I’m from Pennsylvania but have loved Yankee magazine for over 40 years.

    Reply
  • Aimee S.

    Hi Ardith! Your corn bread sounds delicious, and thank you for being a longtime reader! We just love hearing that. :)

    Reply
  • russ k.

    Aimee – glad you like Johnnycakes; we were almost wearned on ’em. But next trip check out Kenyon’s Grist Mill, in Usquepaug — sounds hard, but easy to find, right on Rte 138. Mill’s been operating since (I think) 1698. Huge stones for grinding, still in use. (Your diet could use some stone-dust!) — just kidding; actually the stones don’t even touch each other. Nice folk & a bunch of various grinds to try out. My mom had a big thick-aluminum griddle, very low walls, made it easy to turn cakes, that she used. Wish I still had it.

    Have fun, fair winds.

    Reply
  • arthur h.

    could you supply me with the info to buy some of corn meal from the mill–thank you

    Reply

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