Sunday, June 24, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Rhode Island I - Nobody bakes a cake as tasty as a johnnycake

We are off to the tiniest little state in the nation.  If you blink you might miss it.  Seriously, I know people who have learned this from experience.  That is unfortunate if you're looking for something worth eating.  Though I've never been there, it looks like Rhode Island has a lot worth eating.

Official Name: State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
State Nicknames: The Ocean State, Little Rhody
Admission to the US: May 29, 1790 (#13)
Capital: Providence (largest)
Other Important Cities: Warwick (2nd largest), Cranston (3rd largest), Pawtucket (4th largest)
Region: Northeast, New England; New England (US Census)
RAFT NationsClambake
Bordered by: Connecticut (west), Massachusetts (north and east), Block Island Sound, Rhode Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean (south)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: coffee milk (drink); quahog (shell - the quahog clam is widely eaten in the state); red maple (tree - for the sap); Rhode Island greening apple (fruit); Rhode Island red chicken (bird); striped bass (fish), violet (flower, though Rhode Islanders don't typically eat them),
Some Famous and Typical Foods: johnny cakes, coffee milk, stuffies & New York system dogs; Portuguese cuisine (caldo verde, linguiça, chouriço, bacalhau, etc); Italian cuisine

What is Rhode Island cuisine?  Rhode Island's seems both typical and atypical of New England cuisine: its clam chowder is clear, as in southern Connecticut.  It's heavy on Italian and Portuguese influences, as is coastal Massachusetts.  It's even heavier on the clams, as much of coastal New England tends to be.  But its dishes are rather unique in the region. gives a list of typical dishes and where Ocean Staters can find them.  Some of the most notable ones:
  • stuffies - chopped clams, onions, celery, green bell pepper (sounds almost Cajun, but more Yankee-fied), bacon or linguiça (the Portuguese sausage) and bread crumbs all stuffed into clam shells (hence, "stuffie"), and baked.  These are not exactly common in my neck of the woods (I am in the heart of blue crab country after all), though when I was young my parents used to buy these frozen "stuffed clam shells" at the store that in retrospect seem an awful lot like these stuffies
  • coffee milk - milk mixed with coffee syrup.  Pretty simple.  Is this the opposite of having cream in your coffee: having concentrated coffee in your milk?
  • New York System hot dogs - What is this country's propensity for naming its hot dogs for other parts of the country?  You've got Michigan dogs in upstate New York, Coney Island dogs in Detroit, and New York System dogs in Rhode Island.  Also known as "gaggers" [Wellner, date unknown], these smaller hot dogs are covered in meat sauce, chili, and onion and mustard.  These were apparently invented by Greek immigrants to Coney Island who took the dog and name with them to Providence and parts surrounding.
  • johnny cakes (or johnnycakes / jonny cakes / jonnycakes) - the farther north you go above the Mason-Dixon Line, the sweeter the corn bread gets.  Not in Rhode Island, where these colonial throwbacks are literally the kinds of things the first settlers in Rhode Island would've been eating when Native Americans introduced them to corn,  They are corn meal pancakes, crispy on the outside, tender (if done right) on the inside, and needing a good dose of maple syrup.  These are not in any way sweet or cake-like as is typical "Yankee cornbread", but in this pancake format they aren't in any way Southern in style either.  According to John Mitzewich [ 2010], this is America's original pancake: cornmeal with a smidge each of salt and sugar, mixed with boiling water and cooked in rendered bacon fat.  He shows how to make this below.

Yankee Magazine [date unknown] says that johnny cakes today are a favorite around May in particular.  Many of the locals prefer to use Kenyon Grist Mill's Johnny Cake Meal.  I don't have access to this down here, so I'll just have to stick with what the colonists would have used, as I try my hand at making johnny cakes below.

The Recipe: Johnny cakes

I stuck with the recipe from Yankee Magazine in the end, though I did take one or two ideas from Mitzewich's video as you will see.  For this you will need:

* corn meal (in this case yellow corn meal, about $1.80 at Harris Teeter.  I should have used a New England or at least Northern brand, but House of Autry was the cheapest I got my hands on.  Again, in Maryland we particularly don't have access to "johnny cake meal")
* salt (had it)
* sugar (had it too - you will need very little of this)
* boiling water (some recipes, like Mitzewich's, call just for water; this one wants it to be boiling)
* milk (not all recipes call for this either; I had it on hand)
* butter or bacon grease (here I stuck with the video)
* maple syrup (okay, typically you don't have to have this, but johnny cakes are sometimes served with this)

Mix together the dry ingredients.

Next, pour enough boiling water over it to just swell the mixture.  Let sit for a few minutes.

Then add just enough milk to make it easy to drop into a pan.  I had to experiment with this.

The first batch didn't have enough milk in it, so I ended up with something thick and lumpy.

I had to press them down after flipping them, which worked out fine.

For the second batch, I added more milk before frying.  This time the johnny cakes turned out much more like traditional pancakes.

Since I fried them in bacon grease, I didn't add butter to the johnny cakes - they had enough fat in them already.  But there isn't anything wrong with some maple syrup on top.

While you're at it, why not add some bacon crumbles on top?

What can I say?  These are corn meal pancakes, something I haven't eaten before.  These are a certainly a different (though not exactly "new") way to eat pancakes for me: the flavor of the corn meal is a nice surprise, and while I didn't get the outside particularly crispy (they were nicely browned though), the johnny cakes were nice and soft.

Sources: (user "About"). "How to Make Johnnycakes". Narrated by John Mitzewich for Posted December 5, 2010.

Christensen, Emma. "What's the Difference? Little Neck, Cherry Stone, Top Neck, and Quahog Clams". Posted September 2, 2008. Copyright All rights reserved.

East Coast Gourmet ("Charlie").  "Rhode Island Rocky Point Chowder".  Posted May 14, 2009.  Copyright 2008-2012 The East Coast Gourmet.  All rights reserved.

Dojny, Brooke. The New England Clam Shack Cookbook. 2nd edition. Storey Publishing: North Adams, MA, 2008.  "Cuisine".  Date unknown.  Copyright 1999–2012, "with the exception of elements provided by contributors, as noted".

Rodriguez, Johnette.  "Rhode Island Food Trail: Stuffies".  Yankee Magazine, May/June 2011.  "Stuffies". Saveur, August/September 2005 (Issue 104).

Wellner, Alison.  "Rhode Island's 'New York System' Weiners or 'Gaggers'".  Date unknown  Copyright 2012  All rights reserved.  "Johnnycakes".  Date unknown.  Copyright 2012 Yankee Magazine.  All rights reserved.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Rhode Island" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Rhode Island".