Civil War Food: Johnnycake

Thick pancakes on the plate

Johnnycakes (or, johnny cakes) are a famous food from the Civil War era. They were especially famous among soldiers in the south. They are pancake-like cornmeal flatbreads that are recognized by many other regional names as well: corn cake, hoe cake, mush bread, Shawnee cake, jonakin, and more.

The origin of their name is a real mystery. Most historians believe the name has nothing to do with the actual name Johnny. Instead, they were perhaps first called “journey cakes” – because they could be easily carried on long trips. Over time, the name evolved and changed with cultures and accents.

Other historians believe they were originally called Shawnee cakes, and that colonists mispronounced and slurred the native language, calling them “johnnycakes” instead. (Janiken is an American Indian word meaning “corn cake”)

No matter what you call them, making a batch is a fun activity for children and adults to try. There are several variations on the recipe (again related to regional culture) but this is a good basic Johnnycake recipe to try. This recipe also simulates how the cakes might have been made over a soldier’s campfire. For added fun, you could try the recipe over an actual campfire … with adult supervision, of course.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • ½ cup milk
  • Bacon drippings

Preparation:

Place cornmeal, salt, and sugar in a bowl. Mix dry ingredients and set aside.

In a saucepan over high heat, bring water to a rapid boil and remove from heat. Dribble boiling water onto the cornmeal mixture while stirring constantly. Then stir the milk into the mixture. You want the mixture to be fairly thick, not too runny.

Grease a cast iron skillet with bacon drippings. Heat on the stove on medium to medium-high heat.

When the pan is hot, drop your batter in by the spoonful. Flatten the batter with a spoon or spatula until it is about ¼ inch thick.

Fry until golden brown. Turn and fry the other side. Add more bacon drippings as needed.

Serve hot with butter, jam, maple syrup, or applesauce.

Makes 4 servings.

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