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Pioneer recipe: How to make hoe cakes or Johnnycakes

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Talk about a time-tested recipe! Hoe cakes, or Johnnycakes, have been used as trail food for pioneers, Indians, soldiers and anyone who needed to carry food while traveling.

by Leon Pantenburg

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The small cooking campfires created little domes of light and heat in the dusk. All around me, the Civil War re-enactors were cooking their meals. These guys were hardcore – if everything wasn’t authentic, you could get thrown out of camp.

One of my favorite parts of living history presentations is how people back then dealt with everyday life. Cooking, in particular, always seemed to be a challenge. Ingredients and culinary utensils could be in short supply, and sometimes, a lot of imagination was required to put a meal together. In this case, many re-enactors were using old time recipes, cooked as they would have been over a campfire.

Cook the hoe cakes until they are brown on each side.

Cook the hoe cakes until they are brown on each side.

My favorite this evening was the soldier who mixed up a cornmeal concoction, and baked it on a hoe – a real garden hoe – in front of his campfire. By the time the cornmeal was done, he had quite a crowd watching to see how it came out.

Americans have been eating hoe cakes since they discovered corn. There doesn’t appear to be a set recipe, but really more of a statement of purpose and a general direction.

The first recipe for this dish came out in 1796, according to Bob’s Red Mill Baking Book, when Amelia Simmons published what is believed to be America’s first  recipe for Johnnycakes. She called them “Johnny Cake or Hoe Cake.”

This recipe comes from Bob’s Red Mill Baking Book, and it is a good place to start from for creating your own traditional recipe.

Johnnycakes (Gluten Free)


1-1/2 c cornmeal

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

2 c boiling water

1/3 c milk, room temperature

Combine dry ingredients in a large container, then pour the boiling water over the mixture and let it stand about 10 minutes. Stir in the milk. If necessary, keep adding milk until the mixture is the consistency of pancake batter.

Ladle out the cornmeal meal mixture, about 1/4 cup for each cake. Cook over fairly low heat for about five to ten minutes until brown. Bubble should appear on the surface, and then it’s time to flip and brown the other side.

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