(Issue 8) Food Feature: Thai Harris Singer

‘Grandma’s Hands’, A Food Retrospective: Johnny Cakes

On some Saturday or Sunday morning in or around 2007, my Mother woke up with a craving for Johnny Cakes. She got me out of bed, brought me downstairs to the kitchen, and in my confusion, pulled out a bag of cornmeal instead of the pancake mix. She propped me up on a kitchen stool, pulled out the cast iron pan, and handed me a cup.

“Start measuring.”

I didn’t know what we were making, but it didn’t matter. My Mom never asked me what I wanted to eat. I ate what she told me to. 

While we measured, mixed, and fried up the cornmeal batter, she told me about the origins of this mysterious new dish called Johnny Cakes – or “hoecakes”, as she would say interchangeably. She explained how she used to eat them as a kid. How they are one of the oldest African American foods. How they were eaten by the enslaved all across the country. 

I don’t remember exactly how our Johnny Cakes turned out, I seem to remember we paired them with scrambled eggs. My Mom ate them giddily, filled with nostalgia the entire breakfast. I was unimpressed by the meal, probably disappointed that we weren’t having traditional pancakes which I had come to expect as a weekend specialty. The taste wasn’t pleasant, but I was drawn to it. I liked the idea that what I was tasting could be an ancient taste – one that had been shared and enjoyed by generations of people before me. 

My memory starts and stops randomly along this moment in my childhood, but it sticks out to me as the only time I can recall my Mom mentioning the foodways of her family. I never knew my grandparents. Both passed before I was born. When I was 14 years old, my Mother passed, right at the cusp of starting to get curious about who I was and where I came from. I spent the rest of my teen years resisting my curiosity and feeling at a loss about how to learn more about my Mother’s family line.

(From left to right: My Grandfather, Mom, Aunt, and Grandmother (and the family cat) in their home in Richmond, Virginia, 1960s)

Before she passed, my Grandma left my Mom and her sister a family cookbook. The cookbook remained on our kitchen shelves throughout my childhood, we sometimes pulled it out for special occasions. But it wasn’t until recently – until pandemic boredom sparked my curiosity – that I got interested in investigating what was inside. 

The cookbook is like a museum of my grandmother.

It is filled with anecdotes, hand-written notes, homemade recipes, recipes she liked and stole from other cookbooks, jokes and tidbits, handmade drawings for each chapter. In the back, there is a comprehensive catalog of family photos and family trees, laid out and graphed as conjoining branches. The foods in the book range from New England and Pennsylvania Dutch classics she grew up on, to the Maryland-style seafood staples of her maternal line, to Southern recipes she perfected once she married my Arkansas-raised grandfather. The recipes trace along the Atlantic coast and down through the Old South, reflecting the diversity of lesser-known African American culinary traditions. 

This book is what I have of my grandmother, but it is also what I have of all the generations before her. 

(Grandma Olive’s cookbook. It reads: “Favorite family foods plus other information” with her handmade drawing above.)

In the past year, I’ve become obsessed with it, losing entire hours staring at the family pictures in the back. Wanting to know more about my family’s foodways, I bought two other books on African American culinary tradition –  The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty, and Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin. 

Together with my grandma’s cookbook I am attempting to uncover the least documented, most mysterious parts of my ancestry, recipe by recipe.

On all sides of my family I cannot trace my lineage to a particular place back farther than the edges of North America. I get asked the question a lot. I get it so much that most times I don’t even realize it’s being asked. My ears absorb it as thoughtlessly as a “how are you?”

You know which question. Think about it, take a guess. Yeah, you’ve got it.

I fumble through it.

“I don’t know, somewhere in West Africa.

“I don’t know, somewhere in Eastern Europe.” 

“I don’t know, I can’t tell you.” 

One time I was asked the question and I replied with “My Mom’s side of the family was enslaved, we have no way of knowing.” Unprepared for that answer, the person mumbled some kind of “I’m sorry” under their breath and shut themselves up. 

As I get older, the shame of the “I don’t know” scrapes a little deeper into me. I don’t know where the shame comes from. It’s not my fault that records weren’t kept, couldn’t have been kept, weren’t allowed to be kept, were erased and rewritten, were left behind, were abandoned, were burned to the ground as they fled. It’s not my fault that my ancestors kept records that didn’t look like records to a White American eye. 

Johnny Cakes are a record. My Mom knew that. My Grandmother knew that when she took ink to paper and put it in a book. 

(Recipe for ‘New England Johnny Cakes’ in my Grandmother’s cookbook. *Note the note: The name was derived from “journey cakes.” “Journey” as in, the journey taken by enslaved African Americans north to freedom. I don’t have evidence of this, but I also assume that variations of cornbread-like foods were used as provisions during the Great Migration. I love the idea that this food sustained our people in all stages of their flight. Cornmeal is truly the sustenance of African American travel through time and space.)

You can find non-written records everywhere if you pay attention and are curious enough to make the connections. Varieties of Johnny Cakes are found all over the colonized Atlantic world. When I went to Jamaica for the first time in 2019, I was served Bammy. Bammy is prepared similarly to Johnny Cake but made with cassava root instead of cornmeal. When cooled, it gets industrially dense, resembling a hockey puck. “This is a food of the enslaved,” I thought, the first time it was served to me. I could imagine it keeping its shape and integrity under intense conditions, if you threw it against a wall it might not even lose a crumb.

It is an indestructible form of nourishment – a perfect vehicle of nutrition for those doing hard labor or travelling far on foot.

The first time I ate it, the bite sat like a small stone in my mouth. It didn’t have much flavor and it filled up my stomach too quickly. But I ate it for every breakfast on that trip, something about it felt familiar. I was struck by how recognizable the Jamaican breakfast plate looked. Sautéed greens, plantains, Bammy. I could draw a line directly from Jamaica to the southern U.S. with just a simple morning breakfast.

Pressed and fried cassava cakes like Bammy date back to pre-Columbian times and were eaten by the Arawaks, the people indigenous to the island we now call Jamaica. Enslaved West Africans, who were familiar with cassava from their homelands, used the idea and made it into a dish that was quite literally life-saving among some of the harshest labor conditions in the colonial world.

The Johnny Cake has a similar origin story. Using indigenous methods of processing corn, Johnny Cakes were often fried in the meager renderings of leftover animal fat reserved for enslaved Africans. It’s a meal accessible to most people, even those using scraps from the dinner plates of their owners. The blending of technologies from indigenous and African American foodways is a formula of cultural interaction repeated over and over again across the Western colonial world. As I embarked on my journey through ancestral foods, this intersection felt like the only place to start. And so, 14 years later, I attempted to drudge up the bits of my 10- year old memory and make my version of Johnny Cakes.

First, the cornmeal.

I went to my local grocery store to find what the recipe called for as “stone ground white cornmeal.” Among an entire wall of baking flours, only one bag read that description. At first, I ignored the bag. I thought, “There must be another one I can buy.” There was not. I picked up the sole white cornmeal bag begrudgingly and paid for it with slight embarrassment, a feeling I can only describe as akin to buying a bottle of Aunt Jemima’s syrup. By the time I got home and took a look at the bag again, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of it. Here I was trying to connect to my ancestry through ingredients. And in front of me, was an example of how indigenous people, knowledge, culture, have in themselves been reduced to industrially processed food products. This is how settler colonialism thrives. The image on the bag is a crude symbol, it tells me nothing about the indigenous variety of corn used (it has been renamed simply “white cornmeal”), it isn’t specific in naming any tribal community that the person on the bag belongs to, and it labels the meal as “old fashioned.”

In one swift marketing tool, the bag places the ingredient, the person, and the idea of indigenous food processes in the past and exoticizes it all as a pre-colonial product. I am sharply aware of this when I open the bag and dive my hand in.

When I learn about my family history through the eyes of the oppressor, it is easy to have difficulty imagining my ancestors as full people. The richness of their lives is reduced to their status of subjugation.

“Your ancestors were enslaved”
“Your ancestors were forcibly removed”
“Your ancestors fled persecution”

I have heard these phrases my entire life, but sometimes they still sound foreign. What does one do with that? When I cook foods that have ancestral ties to my family, it helps me to fill in a small bit of humanity where I have been asked not to see any. I can imagine the food, but I can also imagine the intimate process of cooking, I can recreate moments of everyday life and place myself there.

Mixing the cornmeal, salt, and water into a batter.

The smell, the burning fat stinking up the kitchen. When cooking my Johnny Cakes this time, a bit of flying oil hit my finger and burned me. How many times, across how many generations has someone been burnt while making this dish? At some point in time, did a lingering child get hit with a stray bit of hot oil? Did their mother scold, “don’t burn yourself?” Did they dote over the child’s burnt arm with affectionate kisses? “It’s okay, go put it in some water.”

The recipe called to fry them in bacon fat. I only had butter on hand, so butter it was.

What did they like to eat? Did they call each other nicknames? Were their voices distinct? Did they recognize each other’s laughs from a distance? Did they speak multiple languages? I don’t remember details of making Johnny Cakes with my Mother, but I do recall her asking me to stand back from the popping oil. At the moment when I burnt my finger this time, I felt that moment, and then I felt time collapse.

When doing research to find a Johnny Cake recipe that resembled the one I remembered, the varieties were endless. I am struck by how the variety of interpretations of one recipe can both unify us while simultaneously accentuates our differences. In her book, Jubilee, Toni Tipton-Martin quotes chef Jimmy Lee from the Soul Food Cook Book saying, “[Cornbread] comes in a real conglomeration of shapes, sizes, mixtures and names. There’s corn cake, corn pone, corn dodgers, batter cake, spoon bread, corn muffins, hoecake, hushpuppies…” The list goes on, and only extends farther the more you stretch across the U.S. Taste, preference, skill, technique these are all things that have for far too long been relegated to whiteness to determine. But American food, the food that was tested and prepared and skillfully conceived by Black and indigenous enslaved cooks, places the control back in their hands. The diversity in regional versions of Johnny Cake and corn-based foods in African American communities in the U.S. helps me to reclaim those everyday human parts erased by the term “enslaved” – “I like it runny, no I like it thick, no I like it crisp, no I like it soft.”

In my grandmother’s cookbook, she notes that she ate Johnny Cakes “with [butter and] jelly for breakfast or dinner.” But then replaced Johnny Cakes with cornbread and greens for my Grandfather’s tastes. I note the difference – sweet in the North, savory in the South.

The diversity of the preparation reframes my conditioning to remember enslaved African Americans as a monolith. It confirms and reaffirms that Black folks, even in bondage, were abundantly creative and always found ways of expressing it, mostly in ways that were invisible to their oppressors.

I think of my 4th great grandfather, Elijah Marshall, who escaped slavery in Virginia and journeyed on foot to Pennsylvania, where he met my 4th great grandmother at a stop on the Underground Railroad, where she volunteered. My 4th great grandmother Harriet was an upper-middle-class merchant’s daughter, she was educated and devout. Within a few years,the two were married, and Elijah was transported from the plantation to northern Black high society. I like to think about how they met. Despite their differences in upbringing, I wonder what they discovered in each other that was familiar. Perhaps Elijah traveled with something resembling hoecake in his bag, perhaps Harriet fed him cornbread provisions when he arrived in Pennsylvania. Like my Grandmother’s cookbook explains: though they were separated by states and cultures, my Grandmother Northern, my Grandfather Southern, they found common ground with cornmeal.

As I write this article, I am coming down from the news that Derek Chauvin has been just been charged guilty for the murder of George Floyd. I ride a wave of emotions, not quite able to feel the top or bottom of any one feeling, it flows in the opposite direction before it completes itself. I am thinking about how improbable it is that I am here, that any person birthed from a Black person is alive on this continent. Endless familial lines have been cut off too early, so many trees are missing limbs. I recognize that among the violence, nutrition and sustenance have been responsible for keeping those alive who could stay alive. In her book, Toni Tipton-Martin quotes Jimmy Lee, saying that cornbread is “the staff of life in the South”. This statement is as much cultural as it is literal. I understand that if not for the essential nutrition that cornmeal has offered to my ancestors in this country, I would not be here. These foods, the preparations that I am engaging with have their own memories, their own ancestral wisdom. I find myself deferential to them, like I would be to an elder.

Finished product with eggs.

I decided to accompany my Johnny Cakes with fried eggs. I dropped two eggs into the residual butter in the bottom of the cast iron and jumped away as they sizzled fiercely. I finished the whole meal off with hot sauce. The Johnny Cakes were how I remembered them, crispy and delectable on the edges that were browned from the fried butter. They were dense, more filling than I expected. Then I remembered that this was the point of them, to satiate. I got my first full bite of Johnny Cake and egg when the concoction turned sour in my mouth. The residual butter, burnt from a few rounds of frying, had turned the eggs bitter. At first, I was disappointed that I had ruined a meal that I had built up so much in my mind. But as I continued to eat, I came to prefer it. I appreciated that it kept me awake, that it couldn’t quite let me enjoy it fully, that at the end of the pleasure there had to be a reminder of the bitterness.

Thai Harris Singer (she/her) is a playwright, writer, and historian. She currently resides on occupied Lenapehoking, now known as Brooklyn, NY and is a proud 5th generation Brooklynite. Her work is curious about exploring racial performance theory and legacy through theater, food, movement, words, and song.

Leave a Reply