One of the many staples of Southern American cuisine includes cornbread. The recipe for this bread isn’t just simple, but it’s also fluffy, crumbly, and delicious!
You might know cornbread from its Southern slang name, which is Johnny cake. Fried cornbreads are sometimes referred to as hoecakes too.
So, why is cornbread called Johnny cake? In this yummy guide, we’ll dive into the interesting history of cornbread and how you can make some for your next hangout.
Did you know that cornbread first originated from the Native Americans? Because they were simpler times, most recipes and meals were created from a few ingredients and nothing else.
Since cornbread, as you can probably tell from its name, was primarily made from cornmeal or corn flour, it was fairly accessible to the Natives.
Historically speaking, Native Americans, namely the Pawtuxet Indians, originally referred to cornbread as ‘Shawnee cakes’.
Considering that the pronunciation was rather difficult for White settlers to mimic, historians believe that ‘Johnny cake’ was the variation that they came up with—and that was easier to pronounce instead.
As with the etymology of most things from our past, the theories behind the origins of Johnny cake vary and are rather blurry.
So, with that in mind, some historians actually disagree with the aforementioned belief. Instead, they believe the word Johnny cake may have derived from the term Journey cake.
Journey cake was said to be first used back in 1775, particularly around the Southern Gulf Coast.
Renowned historian and lexicographer, Edward Ellis Morris theorized that ‘Journey cake’ was the name Black slaves gave the meal. He said that they decided on that name since the patties could be carried in saddles during long journeys and then cooked on the way.
A final common theory concludes that Johnny cakes are how Jamaicans pronounce the word ‘Journey cake’ in their Jamaican dialect, namely Patois. Both pronunciations sound super close to one another.
Besides being known as Johnny cakes, cornbread is often referred to as hoe cakes as well. Hoe cakes are essentially what we call fried cornbread dough or pieces.
Why is that, though? Because Native Americans and slaves didn’t have the luxury of using pots or pans, history believes that they improvised and used the back of garden hoes to cook what was later called ‘hoe cakes’.
That’s one theory, of course. The other belief states that they used a cast iron pan, known as a hoe. They’d build wood fires and cook the cornbread slices accordingly.
Nowadays, however, hoe cakes are what Southerners and most Americans use to describe pan-fried cornbread.
Fun fact: many foreigners will easily mistake hoe cakes for pancakes because they both have the same flat appearance and are cooked similarly too.
Similar to the etymology and history behind it, it’s just as hard to pinpoint where exactly Johnny cakes came from.
For starters, many believe that the modern Johnny cake is part of New England’s cuisine. Since Johnny cakes weren’t traditionally sweetened, New England cornbread typically features sugar mixed with white or yellow cornmeal.
From New England’s six states, Rhode Island specifically claims to be the original home of Johnny cakes. They’ve altered the main recipe to include both thick and thin fried cornmeal—either of which is wonderfully tasty.
That said, Bahamians will hugely disagree with this belief. The Bahamas believes it’s the starting point of where Johnny cakes came from. The primary difference between the two recipes, however, is that Bahamian cornbread isn’t as sugary.
Instead, the Bahamas makes cornmeal from dry baking ingredients, such as baking soda, flour, and milk. Typically, this fluffy bread is served with jam, butter, or sliced cheese.
Finally, we can’t talk about Johnny cakes without mentioning southern America. If anyone is going to take the lead on where Johnny cakes come from, it’ll be the Southerners.
As the self-claimed inventors of hoe cakes, Southerners consider Johnny cakes as the nation’s delicacy and most popular breakfast meal. They even created a recipe for hot water cornbread as well.
You’ve probably gathered already that Native Americans, otherwise known as the Indigenous people of the land, are the true inventors of Johnny cakes.
Unfortunately, historians have failed to identify which tribe specifically came up with the idea behind Johnny cakes. Some say it was the Narragansett people back in the 1600s, while others think it was the Pawtuxet Indians shortly afterward.
Regardless though, due to the abundance of corn or maize fields in the South, cornbread was one of the few easy and quick meals these uncivilized communities could think of.
It’s said that the native people showed the settlers of New England and the starving pilgrims how to quickly whip up cornmeal. They taught White people how to grind up corn, make fluffy corn patties, and travel with this food without it getting spoiled.
All this talk about cornbread has definitely stirred up an appetite for some yummy Johnny cakes.
Thankfully, they’re relatively easy to make and don’t require complicated ingredients or amazing baking skills.
The dough behind making Johnny cakes is called cornbread gruel. It typically has a creamy, soft texture, but once fried, it becomes rather fluffy and biscuit-like.
Johnny cakes, as we know them now, are made from cornmeal, salt, and milk—which is often substituted with hot water. You can choose whether or not you want to add sugar to this mix.
Why is cornbread called Johnny cake? The theories vary behind the actual etymology of the word Johnny cake, but most historians agree that the word originated from the Native Americans.
So, it’s safe to assume that European settlers and African slaves simply adapted the word to their liking as well as altered the recipe to fit their cuisine.
Either way, the fact that cornbread still managed to last from such past times, is proof that the meal is not only delicious, but also super easy to make!
Sarah is the founder of Baking Kneads, LLC, a blog sharing guides, tips, and recipes for those learning how to bake. Growing up as the daughter of a baker, she spent much of her childhood learning the basics in a local bakery.