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The jonnycake's long journey

Icon was born when cornmeal hit iron pan

Email|Print| Text size + By Vin Fraioli
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2006

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. -- They are crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle, and quite tasty. And when you bite into this bit of fried cornmeal -- called a jonnycake -- you are partaking of a piece of history that dates to when Roger Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island in 1636.

Made with boiling water and cornmeal, the jonnycake grew out of the marriage of cornmeal made by Native Americans and the iron pans brought over by the European colonists.

``Some people say that the Indians invented the jonnycake," said Paul Drumm Jr., owner of Kenyon's Grist Mill in West Kingston , which produces the corn meal found in many area stores and restaurant kitchens. ``But how could they have? They would have to have plopped the cornmeal on a hot rock. No, what they made was a form of porridge."

Rhode Islanders take their jonnycakes seriously. Like the quahog, it has become an edible icon. There are always feisty discussions about how to make the perfect jonnycake, or where one can get them.

There is general agreement that the name jonnycake morphed from ``journeycake," so-called because the flat, sturdy cake was easy to fit in a pocket or pouch for travel. Legend has it that a fist fight once broke out in the Rhode Island Senate over whether there should be an H in jonnycake. There is no official record of that, but the letter remains missing.

Diane Smith calls herself a traditionalist and a purist when it comes to jonnycakes. She and her husband, Bob, own Carpenter's Grist Mill in Perryville, which was built in 1703 and still operates using water from a nearby stream for power. Smith explained that the mill grinds only Rhode Island corn known as ``white cap flint" to make the meal using a stone made of Westerly granite, which gives it a particular color.

``Flint corn is such a low-yield crop," she said, ``farmers don't want to grow it. There is only one ear per stalk and it has to be dried for five to six months. "

Although she was born in England, Smith has become an expert on the traditional jonnycake.

``My husband's father taught me how to make true jonnycakes," she said. ``First, you scald the corn meal with boiling water. Then add a teaspoon of salt, a bit of milk, and sugar. I put a couple of tablespoons of milk in the mixture, so they brown on the griddle. Then drop them on the griddle for about six minutes each side."

Opinions vary, she added, on whether to add milk or water to the mixture.

``Around the state, you have your variations of making jonnycakes. In Newport, they like to make them with cold milk, so they come out thin. But, here, in South County, we use water, so they come out thick. . . . But, nowadays, some people are getting crazy with jonnycakes. They're making them so many different ways. Some are even putting chocolate in them, even Grand Marnier . . ."

Smith was referring to jonnycake iconoclast Dick Donnelly. A former school principal, Donnelly is known as the ``Jonnycake Man," and makes appearances around the state in his green apron and green hat. He has even appeared on Martha Stewart's television show.

``I make them the way I like them," Donnelly said. ``To satisfy myself. I just show people the basics, and they can take it from there. Why, I've even added orange juice, ginger ale, fruits, whatever I can get. I've even taken the Halloween corn off the door and ground it with stones from the garden, but I do stick with a basic recipe, so it holds together: one cup white stone ground meal. There is no wrong way to make a jonnycake."

Contact Vin Fraioli, a freelance writer in North Kingstown, R.I., at Lipuh@aol.com.

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