Johnnycake as it was meant to be

Here is a recipe I expect nobody is likely to try, and it is offered to instruct, more than nourish, you. I believe you can get more valuable history from cookbooks than you'll find in the history books. This truism is somewhat substantiated by the fact that I never knew a historian who could tell a dry Johnson bean from a summer squash, while our best kitchen-based authority remains Fanny Farmer of the Boston Cooking School. Let me set down, first, the pioneer recipe for a Down-East johnnycake, then we can discuss the ingredients.

Johnnycake (Yankee corn bread)

One cup sweet milk,

One cup sour.

Two cups cornmeal,

One cup flour.

Teaspoon salt,

Teaspoon soda.

Half-cup molasses.

Stir it all up,

Put in greased tin

Bake until done.

(Recipe-tester's notes: Put a greased 12-inch skillet - with ovenproof handle - in an oven as you preheat it to 425 degrees F. Carefully pour the batter into the hot skillet. Bake about 20 minutes.)

This subject came up when the lady no'theast by no'th from me said the corn bread this evening was nice. It was a quick one from a package, and it really was good. But I suggested it was a bit sweet to my taste, and it violated the inviolate rule of johnnycake: Never put sugar in a corn bread. She said she didn't know that. Then I realized that nobody will likely make an old-time farm corn bread again, so why make a fuss about sugar?

Let us take things one at a time:

Sweet milk. Milk used to come from a cow and was produced within a few feet of the kitchen. Sweet milk, as used here, would be "set" in a pan overnight. In the morning it would be skimmed for cream to churn butter, or stirred up for table use and cooking. In those times, good milk had lumps in it. The cream was so thick you could pick it up and lay it on your porridge.

Sour milk. Unknown today, sour milk was sour milk. You cannot sour pasteurized milk because the souring enzymes have been destroyed in the pasteurization process. So a johnnycake with true sour milk is rather fanciful today, although you can take dry milk, moisten it, add some vinegar, and make a reasonable substitute. (Use cider vinegar, not the white acetic acid.)

Cornmeal. Cornmeal today is not the coarse, stone-ground kind of the old homestead. This johnnycake was made from the same bin that fed the farm pigs. Remember that corn, as we know it in the United States, was unknown in Europe. The "alien corn" of Ruth was wheat, barley, oats.

The Indians showed early settlers how to make meal with a rock, and probably French settlers rather than English. Early Englishmen didn't make Indian friends as well as the French.

Flour. White flour, nowadays, is milled better than old-time kinds.

Molasses. Barbados molasses was the kind used, and it came in barrels and hogsheads directly to New England and the Maritimes in schooners known as "coasters," as different from blue-water vessels. It was rich, dark, and used for sweetening more than sugar.

Johnnycake. There persist down in Rhode Island two preposterous presumptions about johnnycake. One is that "johnny" comes from "journey," and the corn bread was made to be eaten on a stagecoach trip. The other is that corn bread should be made from white cornmeal.

Both notions are exploded by the simple fact that the French word for "yellow" is jaune. In Acadian country, and in Kaybeck, the French way of saying johnnycake is Jaune-gteau (yellow cake). So much for Rhode Island.

Serving. This johnnycake was first a hot bread for supper, but it was heavy, so the leftover could be sliced cold and fried for breakfast in bacon or salt-pork fat. This made it much better. Some foods would digest on you, but fried johnnycake would stay by you all morning in the woodlot. (But it wasn't served on mornings when cornmeal mush was the porridge. Too much of a good thing, no doubt.)

Variety. The kind of corn used should be given a thought. The basic American Indian corn was by no means the hybrid used today. Seedsmen like Northrup-King improved and crossed, and plant biology is a brand-new science.

A few years back, the city of Lewiston, Maine, wanted a mural for a public building, and paid good money to an artist who produced a lovely painting of Sabbatis Indians (before Columbus!) eating corn by the Androscoggin Falls. The painted corn was a dent variety of modern times, not a sweet corn, but it was yellow.

All anybody knows about history today comes from history books, so it doesn't make all that much difference. Probably Rhode Island will keep right on using white cornmeal for johnnycake. Next thing you know, somebody will be putting tomatoes in clam chowder!

Once in a while, in younger days, I'd make an old-time johnnycake in a reflector oven by a woodland campfire. It is tolerant of heat variations, and the "bake until done" is about all the oven information you need. Outdoors like that, after being on a canoe paddle all day, we'd fry up a Yankee johnnycake in a frenzy of gourmet delight. But in the woods, anything tastes good.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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