May 11, 2014

Journeycakes and Johnnycakes

Journeycake or Johnnycake
This is a recipe that is as old as North American colonization learned by early American settlers from Native Americans. The name of the cake is English, so named because the natives would carry this bread with them in their deerskin bags when they had to travel. After the Revolutionary War, the cakes were renamed by New Englanders to “Johnnycake”, so named from the nickname of American colonial soldiers. 

In southern states it is known as hoecake. As settlers moved westward, they noticed that various tribes made these cakes, but were prepared like pan bread using local grain ground into meal and/or combined with maize (corn) meal. Johnnycakes were a form of pancakes, topped with maple syrup in the East; while southerners called them hush puppies made with cornmeal and served like biscuits with a meal like catfish steaks and mustard greens. I knew it as a youth as Navaho bread, but cowboys of the Old West would call it Injun Bread. While varied in preparation and content, tribes from the eastern seaboard to the shores of the Pacific cooked some form of Journeycakes. It is truly an American food, like turkey, which originated in North America and introduced to Europe where goose and duck were the primary traditional fowl for dinner tables. This recipe is for Johnnycakes, although the mixture can be made in the consistency of dough to make Navaho bread in the home frying pan or over a campfire in a cast-iron skillet.

1 cup meal or stone-ground cornmeal
2 teaspoons sugar
3/4-teaspoon sea salt
2-3/4 cups water with extra hot water to thin batter as desired.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 egg (optional if you less crumbly cakes)
  1. Place oven rack to middle position and heat to 200°. Set a wire rack on rimmed baking sheet.
  2. Whisk meal, sugar, and salt together in bowl. Boil water in large saucepan. Slowly whisk meal mix into boiling water until there are no lumps; continue cooking until thickened, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat and whisk in butter. Pour batter into bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let sit until firm, about 15 minutes.
  3. Rewhisk batter until smooth. Batter should have consistency of mashed potatoes for Johnnycakes; if not thin with 1 or 2 tablespoons of hot water until mixture will drop easily from spoon.
  4. If you are making Navaho bread, the batch will have the consistency of dough used for drop biscuits. Shape them like hush puppies or round like biscuits – or just drop globs into hot oil in a pan. I add one egg to the batter when making Navaho bread to keep them from being crumbly. Natives, to my knowledge, never added eggs for obvious reasons – they did not have chickens until more recent periods of their history and wild bird eggs were hard to come by.
  5. Heat one tablespoon oil in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering (or use griddle at 400°). Use greased ¼ measuring cup and drop six spaced scoops of batter into skillet, using a spoon to help release the batter. Cook without moving until edges appear crispy and golden brown, 6-8 minutes.
  6. Carefully flip Journeycakes and press with spatula to flatten into 2-1/2 to 3-inch pancakes. Continue to cook until brown, 5-7 minutes. Transfer to prepared wire rack and place in oven to keep warm. Repeat cooking process until remaining batter is used. Serve with maple syrup (New England style) or molasses (southern style). Here up in the northern states it is difficult to find molasses, something I miss since living in Tennessee and Georgia.
Native Americans used local grains for their cake/bread, using wild growing plants; while agricultural natives, like Navaho, grew maize for their ground meal. In days of old, the bread was cooked on hot stones in a campfire or like Navaho, in clay-brick ovens. Later, as trade with settlers became popular, natives would cook with cast-iron cookware.
When they used cooking oil, it certainly was not the modern vegetable oil widely used today. They extracted oil from the seeds of thistle plants like Carthamus tinctorius, commonly known as Safflower. The same seeds were used to make red and yellow dyes for their clothing or warriors painting their horses. The Safflower has been used since at least the 12th dynasty in ancient Egypt. Safflowers were found in the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen. It is found in many regions of the world, including North America.
Peanuts (bean family of plants) became a major crop in the southern states, a plant that dates as far back as 7,000 years in Peru, so peanut oil was once commonly used. Surprisingly, peanut plants were used to feed animal stock until the 1930s, when it became popular for other things. It was George Washington Carver who developed various ways to use peanuts including his own recipes. It was planned by Carver to be the secondary money-making crop to cotton when the boll weevil had destroyed cotton crops. Carver developed over 100 products from peanuts and has been considered the 'Leonardo' of agriculture.
Today the cost makes it prohibitive for common use, although it is popularly used to kettle cook turkeys and other poultry. Peanut oil is nutritious and has a higher smoke temperature. Mountain men, as early native Americans did, used animal fat; especially bacon fat from hogs, wild or domesticated.
Laura Ingalls-Wilder, 1894
If you want to get a gist of what the days of pioneering was like, read The Little House series of books written by Laura Ingalls-Wilder [1857-1957]. People that used to watch the television series (1974-1984) named from one of the books of the series, Little House on the Prairie, probably never read the books. They are a treasure of American history and culture and a tale about a real family. It's probably one of the oldest American books still in print. Her family homestead has become an historical treasure. The television show lasted ten years and the actors and actresses who portrayed the family, Melissa Gilbert portraying Laura Ingalls, considered her TV father as a second father. Michael Landon played Mr. Ingalls. It was my father's favorite TV show and probably what made her books famous years after her death in 1957.

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