Recipe with a History: Johnnycakes

October 13, 2020

My dad was a mechanic for many years, and most of that time, he worked on big trucks or trailer trucks for semi-trailers. I remember visiting the garage where he worked when I was about seven or eight. As a little girl, standing around those big trucks was intimidating.  


While Dad didn't drive tracker trucks, but he did have something in his own personal pickup that the truck drivers had. It could be called the predecessor of today's cell phones: the citizen band radio or CB.  My dad talked with many people he met solely through the CB airwaves.

Today, the memory of CB radio use in the 70s can be remembered in movies such as "Smokey and the Bandit" and TV shows like "Dukes of Hazzard."

Pop-up QuizWhat were the CB handles of the characters of Dukes of Hazzard? (Answer below!)

When using a CB, users would be identified by chosen "handles" or nicknames, using those monikers to find each other as they traveled. It is similar to this generation, who use nicknames with gaming on the internet. And Twitter. And Instagram. (Some things really don't change.)

One day, out of the blue, I happened to remember his CB nickname:  Johnny Cakes.

Unfortunately, Dad passed away 15 years ago, so I cannot ask him how he got that nickname.  However, I have a pretty good idea.

My dad was the youngest of five children and the only son. At family gatherings, I remember my mom would refer to him only as John. However, his older sisters called him either Johnny or JB (for John Benjamin).

After further sleuthing, I learned that there is such a thing as "Johnny Cakes. (Really, I had no clue.) Since my dad's family was originally from Arkansas, I first assumed it was a staple of the South, like cathead biscuits and chocolate gravy that was a favorite of my dad's.

From Wikipedia and a collection of several online sources for the history of Johnny Cakes, it appears as though the origin isn't from the South at all.

There seems to be some consensus that the "Johnny Cake" (or johnnycake) was initially called Shawnee Cakes after a tribe in the Tennessee ValleyColonists may have slurred the words, pronouncing it johnnycakes. Others believe that it may come from "janiken," an American Indian word meaning corn cakes

There is also a claim that the johnnycake originated in Rhode Island.  However, that could have come about because settlers learned to make johnnycakes from the local Pawtuxet Indians.  

Additionally, these simple cakes may have also been called "journey cakes" since they required little ingredients and were easy to carry while traveling.  Civil War soldiers in the South made them but referred to them as "hoecakes," a name still used in parts of the South today.   

I decided to experiment with a recipe for johnnycakes for nostalgia's sake. I thought it would be fun to taste and give my youngest son a food-in-history homeschool lesson and share a story about his grandpa, who he was never able to meet.  


The standard recipe calls for cornmeal, salt, water, milk, and bacon drippings. I decided on this particular recipe that along with the cornmeal, uses flour, butter (instead of bacon drippings), egg, baking powder, and sugar. This was the first time that I made a batter with hot milk in a pot on the stove.    

I do not own a cast-iron skillet, but my large non-stick frying pan did just as well. These cakes are meant to be small, so four at a time could be fried. There was a need for a little more milk than required to keep the batter to a thinner consistency. 

For frying, I used canola oil on medium heat. After trying out a couple to test the temp, I decided to use my ice cream scoop to get the batter on the pan more smoothly. Just a half scoop is needed. It was about two minutes on each side for the cakes to cook through.

The recipe recommended eating with butter and syrup, which is how my son and I tried them. However, too much syrup disguises the corn flavor. 


Although small cakes, they are a little heavy, so maybe allowing one or two with something on the side, like scrambled eggs, would round them off nicely. 

Would I make them again? They were tasty, so I imagine I will, especially if I have to use up cornmeal from the pantry. Extra cakes kept extremely well in the fridge and were just as good warmed up as when first fried.

This was an enjoyable, nostalgic, learning experiment.  Have you ever tried a recipe like this one that relates to American history? 

And the Pop-up Quiz answer:  Uncle Jesse's CB handle was "Shepherd," Bo and Luke's handle was "Lost Sheep," and Daisy's handle was "Bo Peep." (


  1. I haven't had johnny cakes in a long time. I am from Alabama so I had heard each of these potential origins of johnnycakes before. Who knows, right? But I haven't ever tried to make them myself. This recipe seems pretty straight forward enough!

    Oh, I got my husband to watch Smokey and the Bandit with me last year. He had never seen it --but it was a big thing in my childhood as were the Dukes of Hazard. A little problematic now that I am older but I was a kid then...

    1. The recipe was easy! If I can make it good the first time then you certainly could! I'm not sure what my teen would think of Dukes of Hazzard today ... but then it may not be a good idea because of Daisy in her short-shorts - lol!

  2. Oh my gosh! It sounds delicious!! Makes me want to try them myself. And what a neat origin story. I like anything that honors the Native Americans.

    1. Try them! If I can make them the first try, so can you! I just finished them off a couple days ago - they stored well in the fridge!

  3. I enjoy word origins, especially when it involves other languages. I learned about a drink that was popular in the colonies called a Rum Shrub, a mixture of fruit, sugar and vinegar that was mixed with rum. I served it at a BBQ, and we were also served it at a historically-themed dinner as part of a national parks tour in Philadelphia. It was combined with oil as a salad dressing, combined with soda as a drink for the kids, and with rum for the adults. History at the table!

  4. Fantastic! I love anything resembling a corn pancake, and I love heavy ones. Shawnee cakes -> Johnnycakes, I'm sure that's what happened. Either way, second only to the hush puppy!

  5. What a great memory for you about your dad's CB handle and Johnny Cakes! I remember my grandmother making them years and years ago but I have never tried them. Might be something to add to Lia's baking projects. Back in the days of CB we used them often on our snowmobile club. My hubby's handle was Cyclone but I don't even remember mine!


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